AFTER watching Sunderland’s recent slump continue at Bristol Rovers last night, a deflated Phil Parkinson has urged his players to keep their cool in the promotion run-in.

The Black Cats slipped out of the play-off zone after losing 2-0 at the Memorial Ground, despite the fact that Rovers had won just one of their previous 15 league fixtures.

A goal in each half from Jonson Clarke-Harris inflicted the latest disappointing defeat on Sunderland, who are now winless in four games and collected just two points from the last 12 available.

That run has seen them drop down to seventh and they have now played a game more than every team above them; they have played two more than leaders Coventry City.

Coventry are now eight points above Sunderland, who have a three point gap to make up on second-placed Rotherham who do have that extra game to play.

But Sunderland, who head to Blackpool on Saturday before the international break, need to find improvements from somewhere, particularly in the final third, if they are to close the gap on the automatic spots.

And Parkinson wants to see greater composure in his team’s approach in the final eight matches having witnessed the occasion get the better of them in Bristol.

“We started OK, we had decent control, we were passing reasonably well, but we then got caught up with the referee decisions. The crowd, we got too emotional and stopped playing,” said Parkinson.

“I spoke about it before, away from home, the crowd can get on to the ref, decisions go against you, and it affected our play.

“There was an incident just in front of the dug-out in the first half, everyone reacted to it and we couldn’t get back playing again.

“We lost our cool, we conceded the first goal seven or eight minutes later. We lost our way and we have to accept that wasn’t a good enough performance in terms of the way we have been playing.”

The incident he spoke about was when Jordan Willis was wiped out near the touchline and the two benches were up in arms and then the players clashed on the pitch.

Even though there was nothing too serious, Sunderland’s players did get caught up in what went on and that played in to Rovers’ hands because Clarke-Harris found the net with six minutes remaining of the first half.

Kyle Lafferty was one of five players booked during that period and referee Charles Breakspear – who has built a reputation for dishing out cards, and 13 have been red this season – had to have a further word with the Northern Ireland international. Parkinson replaced him with the fit again Charlie Wyke at the break.

“I brought him off at half-time because I thought he was going to get sent off,” said Parkinson. “He was one booking, warning away from being sent off. After what he did for us at the weekend, how well he took his goals against Gillingham, that really summed up the evening’s work for us.”

Parkinson added: “In any game it has been a physical challenge for us, and we have had to be calm, cool, how do we get back in the game?

“What we have been doing with our patterns of play, the movement, control of the game, that was how we would get back into it. We got caught up in a frenzy, gave free-kicks away.

“The referee was very poor, but I have said to the lads many times don’t expect any favours away from home because being a ref is sometimes difficult. We got caught up in that instead of playing with our heads.”

Sunderland – who were without Duncan Watmore who was ill - handed first starts to Josh Scowen and Antoine Semenyo following their arrivals in January from Reading and Bristol City, but Parkinson didn’t blame either of those for the defeat.

He said: “First of all I feel sorry for them because they did alright. They have had to wait patiently for their chance. I changed the team and that was my gut feeling. I certainly don’t think the changes contributed to the defeat.”