NINE games remaining, starting with a Tuesday night in Bristol, for Sunderland to deliver the promotion target that was originally set out 19 months ago. Having put themselves within touching distance of achieving their goal, Phil Parkinson knows he can’t afford too many more slip-ups like the last few games.

While the Black Cats have only lost one of those three winless matches, including a defeat to clear leaders Coventry City, Parkinson is experienced enough to know that victories need to become the norm in the final eight weeks of the season to avoid a play-off tussle.

Given there is only one point separating Oxford in third and Wycombe in eighth, fifth-placed Sunderland are not even assured of a top six spot right now. That will not detract from the main aim of finishing in one of those coveted automatic spots.

And a failure to hold on to a lead twice given to them by Kyle Lafferty against Gillingham on Saturday is the sort of flaw that Sunderland will need to recover from and avoid in the run-in if they are to climb above Rotherham United and stay there before the end of the season.

The Millers are only three points above Sunderland but Parkinson’s men would have been just a point adrift had they held on against the Gills, rather than caved in to two defensive mistakes that has left them with a bigger hill to climb.

Sunderland need look no further than at this stage last season to realise how important it is to win the remaining matches or risk losing out completely.

With nine matches remaining, having just won at home against Walsall, Jack Ross’ side were sitting third, two points shy of second spot. Luton and Barnsley ended up staying in the top two and Sunderland ended up falling away and missed out via a play-off push to Wembley when they lost to Charlton.

What Sunderland need to make sure is that they do not allow Mikael Mandron’s brace on his return to the club where it all started with Gillingham to haunt them, having seen the 25-year-old score in the sixth minute of stoppage-time from the edge of the area when Parkinson just needed his side to see the game through.

“I was surprised, I thought it was going to be four minutes of added time,” he said. “But that’s by-the-by, I should be sat here talking about three points if we defend the long throw better. Just one point now separates third from eighth in what is turning into a truly remarkable race for the top-two positions.

“You look at it when you come off, and think, well other results haven’t been too bad, that’s good, but then, if we get the extra two points - it’s difficult after a game to be upbeat because we’ve thrown away two points after a lot of good play.

“We passed it really well against a very robust team, but at the moment we’re flat. We’ve got to pick ourselves for up for Tuesday and we will.”

Despite a clear intention from Gillingham to do what they do best by stifling teams and hitting them with a sucker punch, Sunderland still managed to get in front twice courtesy of Lafferty’s double on his first start since moving from Norwegian football in January.

The first half was dreadful, with Sunderland probably just doing enough to shade it, but there was very little between the two teams in a largely flat first half in which the Gills had two players pulled up for time-wasting when the scoreline was still goalless.

After the restart Sunderland did show greater attacking intent and got their reward from a cleverly worked opener in the 64th minute. Chris Maguire rolled a pass out wide for Denver Hume to hit first time into the box for Lafferty to dive at his near post and head into the bottom corner.

It was a fine way to open his account for Sunderland following Parkinson’s decision to hand him his full debut to give Charlie Wyke’s back problem a break. Wyke, by all accounts, should be available for the trip to Bristol Rovers on Tuesday night.

“Charlie has had a bit of a problem recently so we decided to get that sorted,” said Parkinson. “He could probably have carried through to the Blackpool game but it was getting to a stage where we just felt we’d do the injection this week and hopefully get him right for the games coming up.

“He’s got a good chance for Tuesday. It’s not a major problem but with Kyle and Will Grigg available, we felt we could take the chance to get it sorted.

“It wasn’t too bad earlier this week but as it went on, it just didn’t get much better. We could have got him through painkillers but we decided to get it sorted and hopefully we’ll reap the benefits of that.”

Rather than build on that opener Mandron was then gifted an equaliser out of nothing ten minutes later. The 25-year-old, who was let go by Sunderland when Sam Allardyce was in charge in 2016, was on hand in the six yard box to poke a finish inside the far corner after both Alim Ozturk and Jordan Willis had failed to deal with a long throw into the area.

Parkinson said: “In the main we handled their physical threat OK but it’s not OK to do that for 90 per cent of the time, it has got to be 100. It’s proven costly for us. If it’s an amazing goal or bit of magic, you can sometimes say, OK. But we could have done better.”

After that Gillingham actually looked the more confident and Mandron could have put Gillingham ahead when Jon McLaughlin was forced to get down low to turn away the Frenchman’s effort after more defensive hesitation.

The goalkeeper was also on hand moments later to stop a header from Jack Tucker too, which sparked an angry reaction from McLaughlin, who could be seen demanding more from the men in front of him.

And yet it was Sunderland who managed to edge themselves in front again. Despite calls for offside, Lafferty was sent through by a brilliant slide rule pass from George Dobson and the former Hearts and Rangers striker did the rest by dispatching an assured, low finish beyond Jack Bonham.

It was Lafferty’s first goal since finding the net for Sarpsborg on December 1 and his first in English football since November 5, 2016 when he delivered for Norwich against Leeds.

Parkinson said: “I’m pleased for Kyle. The first is a great team goal and the second is a fantastic pass from George and a cool finish. It’s great, for us and him, to get off and running.

“He grew into the game and you always feel he’s a danger when the ball goes into the box because his movement is very good. He had a great chance to score before that with his left foot and you’d expect him to put that away. I’m pleased, he’s a good lad.

“There’s been a lot of talk about players out the team and making changes, but as I said before the game, it’s up to the players to take that chance, whether it’s off the bench or starting. You have to say ‘I’ve arrived’ and Kyle certainly did that.”

Given Lafferty’s second arrived with just seven minutes remaining, that should have been that. Except Rob Lee’s son Olly was allowed to lay the ball off for Mandron to drill in a low finish from distance deep into stoppage-time to seal a point for Gillingham.

The Frenchman said: “I’m of course happy I got a couple of goals, one being so late in the game too. I’ve been looking to get goals for a while, and obviously to come back here and to score at the Stadium of Light it feels really good.

“Coming here I obviously want to do well, but it didn’t feel any different. It feels like home here. I really enjoyed my time here and I was here for a while. I played many games here for the under-23s and a few for the first team as well. This place feels like home.”

While Mandron, an academy graduate of Sunderland, might have been satisfied, Parkinson certainly wasn’t.

“It hurts,” he said. “It’s a game I felt we were comfortable in really but as I said prior to the game, against Gillingham you have got to defend the set plays and the long throws, and then you’ve got to go and play. I thought for the majority of the game we did that. Two moments proved costly. The second, we’ve got to show more desire, to win the first one and then to block the shot. If we do that, we’re sat talking about three points.”