FROM a position of apparent strength, where Sunderland had genuine hopes of sneaking into the League One automatic promotion places, a dreadful night out in Bristol has now left them sitting outside the play-off zone.

Having suffered just one defeat in 15 matches to reignite hopes of a Championship return, a four-match winless run has seen them slip down to seventh and the latest disappointment was a crushing 2-0 defeat at struggling Bristol Rovers.

The Memorial Ground is not a venue where many teams like to go but before Jonson Clarke-Harris’ double, a goal in each half, Rovers had only won one of their previous 15 league matches. The Black Cats never looked inflicting more misery on them here, though.

Sunderland failed to create anything of note and, even though there were frustrations with some of referee Charles Breakspear’s decisions, Clarke-Harris’ opener six minutes before the break was followed by a penalty from him with quarter of an hour left after Max Power handled Luke Leahy’s cross to seal the points.

A worrying slump has arrived at the wrong time in the promotion race. This scoreline means Sunderland have dropped down to seventh and, while only three points shy of second placed Rotherham, they have now played at least one game more than the teams around them.

Just two points from the last 12 available to them is enough to raise concern among supporters and there is now no way Sunderland can afford to leave Blackpool with anything other than three points this Saturday.

After failing to beat Fleetwood, Coventry and Gillingham, Parkinson’s ploy to try Josh Scowen and Antoine Semenyo for the first time from the start following January moves didn’t have the desired effect.

The pair’s inclusion meant no place for Lynden Gooch and George Dobson, but Kyle Lafferty did retain his place at the top of the formation despite Charlie Wyke being passed fit enough to replace Duncan Watmore on the bench.

If Parkinson was hoping for an immediate lift it never materialised. While Semenyo’s exciting start raised hope, Sunderland struggled to make the sort of impact in the final third that was desired.

Even though Sunderland had more of the ball, quite comfortably too, there was never any sense that Jamal Blackman, who had a loan spell at Middlesbrough a few years ago, was under any real threat in the Rovers goal.

The home side looked the more dangerous in the penalty area, with the front two of Jayden Mitchell-Lawson and Clarke-Harris looking livelier and there were a couple of early scares which Jordan Willis and Alim Ozturk did well to clear up.

As frustrations among the visitors grew and Rovers looked to put pressure on the visitors every time they got the ball, Sunderland found themselves behind with six minutes remaining of the first half and there could be few complaints.

It was a well-executed goal too. Alex Rodman’s lovely slide-rule pass into the area was perfectly weighted for Ollie Clarke to run on to.

The locally produced Clarke delivered low across the face of goal where Mitchell-Lawson’s presence prevented a defensive clearance and Clarke-Harris was on hand to turn Luke O’Nien and hammer into the roof of the net.

After that Sunderland were probably relieved to hear the half-time whistle to regroup because they came within a whisker of conceding a penalty when Cameron Hargreaves was cautioned for simulation after claiming to have been tripped by McLaughlin.

Hargreaves was incensed, and he was not the only one, but Sunderland were frustrated by a number of Breakspear’s decisions at the end of a half in which five yellow cards were dished out, three to Sunderland, and it didn’t even seem a naughty period.

It was no surprise that Parkinson reacted to the insipid display by changing something and Wyke was introduced for Lafferty, who never looked like adding to his brace from Saturday. By the end of the game, though, Wyke hadn’t gone any closer either.

There was an increase in Sunderland’s urgency, but Blackman was not even asked to make a save. The nearest an equaliser had come before the hour was a corner that was cleared routinely by the blue and white shirts in the area.

Both sets of fans, players and dug-outs were angered by decisions from the officials but Sunderland should still have done more than they did to influence things. The truth is they lacked the creativity and cutting edge to unlock a determined Gas defence.

That led to Parkinson switching to 4-4-2 for the final 19 minutes, with the forward-thinking Gooch asked to replace defender Ozturk. Still, though, Sunderland struggled and Rovers actually raised their own game and they soon won the penalty.

Leahy’s cross hit the arm of Power in the area and, after little complaints, Clarke-Harris clinically converted the penalty low and beyond the diving frame of McLaughlin and Sunderland’s miserable night had got a lot worse.

Not even six minutes of added time and the appearance of Will Grigg late on could alter this. The damage was done.