A DISPIRITING head-to-head in which neither competitor did anything remotely impressive nor produced anything that really merited them emerging as the winner. For the ITV leadership debate, read Sunderland playing against Gillingham for a place in the second round of the FA Cup.

It was red against blue here too, and just as Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson were unable to land a knockout blow in the first televised debate of the election campaign, so the two sides playing at the Priestfield Stadium spent 120 minutes struggling to lay a glove on each other. If only either team had been capable of putting a cross in the box.

It was desperate stuff, enlivened only by the 105th-minute strike from Brandon Hanlan that settled things in Gillingham’s favour, and piled further embarrassment on Sunderland. For the first time in almost a century, they have gone out of the FA Cup in the first round.

Phil Parkinson won’t be too concerned at that given the overriding priority of reigniting a promotion push that is in danger of being extinguished before the January transfer window is even open, but he must surely be alarmed at his side’s flat-lining form.

He has now won just two of his nine matches since replacing Jack Ross, a dreadful record that a plethora of cup matches cannot excuse. Ross was dismissed because his results in the first three months of the season were not ‘promotion form’. The way Parkinson is going, Sunderland will finish closer to the bottom of League One than the top.

Last night’s display was every bit as anaemic as the one that resulted in the Black Cats’ exit from the EFL Trophy last week, with senior players like Max Power, Chris Maguire, Duncan Watmore and the horrendously out-of-sorts Will Grigg once again failing to perform.

While Brandon Taylor was drafted into a five-man defence for his first senior appearance outside of the EFL Trophy, on paper Sunderland’s starting line-up would still have been the envy of most of their League One rivals. On the pitch, however, their failings were all-too apparent.

The same was true in last week’s Leasing.Com Trophy defeat at Scunthorpe United, and for the second week in a row, Parkinson must have been alarmed at the sight of a reasonably strong Sunderland line-up labouring against limited opposition. That they failed to create a single chance of note in 120 minutes of football was the most damning indictment of all.

Gillingham are a better side than Scunthorpe, but they still sit five places below the Black Cats in the League One table, having played two games more, yet as had been the case at the Stadium of Light ten days earlier, there was precious little to choose between the two teams. For much of the night, it was a case of their respective limitations cancelling each other out. Ultimately, though, Gillingham produced the one moment of genuine talent courtesy of Hanlan’s accomplished low finish.

Sunderland’s lack of attacking potency was apparent all evening, and was especially evident during an insipid first half that saw neither goalkeeper seriously tested.

Devoid of pace and creativity, failings that have hampered the Black Cats throughout their time in the third tier, the visitors struggled to force their way into Gillingham’s defensive third. On the odd occasion they got there, they found themselves easily contained.

Grigg cut an especially frustrated figure, and for all that Parkinson refuses to give up on the Northern Irishman, there will have to come a time when Sunderland’s manager accepts it is simply not working for January’s marquee addition.

Grigg certainly doesn’t look like a £4m striker at the moment, and while Parkinson appears to harbour reservations about Marc McNulty’s suitability for a place in the starting side, Charlie Wyke will almost certainly find himself back in the line-up once he returns to full fitness. That should only be a week or two away at most, and on the evidence of Sunderland’s performances under Parkinson so far, they need someone with Wyke’s physicality to lead the line.

In his absence last night, Sunderland rarely looked like testing Jack Bonham in the Gillingham goal. Laurens de Bock glanced an early header wide of the target and Power swung in a cross-cum-shot that was awkwardly clawed away, but Bonham was only really extended once before the break.

Luke O’Nien cut in from the right, but Bonham was equal to his driven low effort, parrying the ball neatly at his front post.

O’Nien was stationed at right wing-back, with Parkinson reverting to a five-man defence for the first time since switching systems halfway through the Carabao Cup defeat at Oxford. With Denver Hume lining up on the opposite flank, and Alim Ozturk playing between Taylor and de Bock, Sunderland were defensively solid, something that Parkinson could at least draw a degree of satisfaction from.

Hanlan brushed aside de Bock to fire in a first-half effort that was deflected narrowly wide, and glanced a header past the post after Mark Byrne crossed from the right, but with Grant Leadbitter mopping up any danger from the base of midfield, Gillingham were every bit as unthreatening as their opponents.

Hanlan’s second-half shot that cannoned into Ozturk, momentarily pole-axing the Turkish centre-half in his own 18-yard box, summed up the evening, and with his side lacking any kind of attacking incision, it was a surprise it took Parkinson 64 minutes before he opted for a change.

Aiden McGeady came on to replace the utterly ineffective Watmore, and for all that his presence might slow Sunderland down, it is telling that the 33-year-old Irishman remains the Black Cats’ best chance of fashioning a goal. Unlike some of his team-mates, his ability endures.

Within eight minutes of being on the field, McGeady was creating the best chance of the night for Grigg, but perhaps predictably, his team-mate was unable to convert. He got himself into a decent position after receiving the ball 20 yards from goal, but drilled a low shot wide of the left-hand upright.

With the scores goalless at 90 minutes, the game headed into extra-time, and for the first time all night, one of the sides began to build up a head of steam. Suffice to say, it wasn’t Sunderland.

Max Ehmer drilled a shot against the crossbar, and Taylor survived a penalty appeal despite appearing to handle the ball as he misjudged a cross, but the Black Cats’ resistance cracked in the 105th minute.

Hanlan was released into the right-hand side of the area, and holding off his marker, he drilled a low finish past Burge’s right hand.