WHEN Matt Godden fired home his stoppage-time equaliser for Peterborough United on Monday afternoon, the reaction from the 4,000-strong contingent of travelling Sunderland fans was one of despair. The striker’s neat low finish was painful, dramatic and extremely damaging to the Black Cats’ hopes of securing automatic promotion. It was not, however, a surprise.

Drawing games has been Sunderland’s Achilles heel all season, and if Jack Ross’ side are to miss out on a top-two finish in the next two weeks, their failure to turn even one or two of their drawn matches into a victory will have been a key factor in their position in the play-offs.

After Monday, Sunderland have now drawn a staggering 18 games this season. For all that they have done well this term, they have only won 22. Stoke City are the only team in England’s top four divisions to have racked up more draws than the Black Cats, and while avoiding defeat is not the worst trait a team can have, successful sides tend to have worked out how to turn a closely-fought game into a narrow victory. Or, just as relevantly, learned how to stop throwing away a lead.

Sunderland haven’t cracked either of those things, and while there is still a chance they could overhaul Portsmouth and Barnsley to claim automatic promotion, games like Monday underline why they are now much more likely to find themselves contesting the play-offs.

“There’s no point dressing up what happened,” said a commendably honest Max Power. “It’s unacceptable, especially at this stage of the season. To score that late on in a performance where you’ve put so much into it and then have that happen, it’s tough to take, really tough to take. But it’s happened too many times this season.

“That’s the most disappointing thing. I’m not going to sugar-coat it, we’ve drawn far too many games. If we don’t go up is Peterborough the one that’s cost us? Not for me, it’s happened too many times. We should be out of sight, we’re not.

“With three games left, all we can do now is take maximum points and see where it takes us. We’ve got three games left, and one of them’s against Portsmouth, so we can go back above them. But unfortunately, we’re still dependent on Barnsley slipping up.”

While Sunderland continue to stutter, Barnsley show no sign of slowing. The Tykes scored three goals in the opening half-hour as they cruised to a 3-0 win at Plymouth Argyle on Monday, and face Blackpool and Bristol Rovers in their final two games.

Win those, and Sunderland cannot catch them no matter what they do in their remaining matches, a home game against Portsmouth and away games at Fleetwood and Southend.



2. Barnsley P44 GD+41 Pts 88

3. Portsmouth P43 GD +33 Pts 86

4. Sunderland P43 GD +35 Pts 84

Saturday, April 27

Barnsley vs Blackpool

Sunderland vs Portsmouth

Tuesday, April 30

Fleetwood Town vs Sunderland

Saturday, May 4

Bristol Rovers vs Barnsley

Portsmouth vs Accrington Stanley

Southend United vs Sunderland


Jack Ross’ side have been playing catch up for the second half of the season, but have always had the safety cushion of matches in hand. In the wake of the latest round of games, their lifeline has expired.

“Come the end of the season, we’ll finish on a points total we deserve,” said Power. “Everyone does. I won’t go over games, but we know we’ve drawn too many. There’s no luck to where you finish. There’s no hiding from that.

“If that’s not automatic, it’ll be disappointing and we’ll have to go into the play-offs, but no one wants that. There’s still three games to go.

“You look at Wigan going to Leeds last week – no one expected them to win. We’re going to need something like that with Barnsley. Really though, we’ve just got to focus on Portsmouth and beat them.”

A win against Portsmouth is imperative if Sunderland are to have any chance of reclaiming an automatic-promotion spot, with Saturday’s game also offering an opportunity to extract some revenge for last month’s Checkatrade Trophy final defeat at Wembley.

That afternoon could prove to have been Sunderland’s season in microcosm – plenty of excitement and a sense of achievement to a certain point, but ultimately falling short of what was hoped for.

Given everything that happened prior to last summer, it was always going to be a tough task for the new regime to achieve automatic promotion at the first time of asking. Charlie Methven has regularly claimed that a play-off spot was the pre-season target, and while Ross has never shied away from targeting a top-two finish, he has regularly warned that Sunderland do not have a divine right to sweep their way through the division.

Even so, expectation levels have risen inexorably throughout the season, and if the Black Cats were to find themselves in the play-offs, their failure to finish in the top two would inflict significant wounds that would have to be repaired quickly before the end-of-season shoot-out began.

“I’ve spoken before about the challenges we’ve faced this season,” said Power. “I’ve played for Wigan, who are a great club, but it’s not a club the size of Sunderland, and playing for a club this size comes with the territory of everyone raising their game. It was probably their (Peterborough) biggest crowd of the season the other day, and we’ve had to deal with it all season.

“But I’ll never look for excuses, I’ll never sugar-coat anything. If we don’t go up automatically, we haven’t been good enough to, that’s the black and white.

“The club’s come a long way for where it’s been the last few years. It’s certainly a rebuilding process, but I’ve never shied away from the fact I’m here to get promoted. Hopefully, we achieve that, and it’s automatic, but if not, we’ll have to address the play-offs.”