LOSING away to promotion rivals Portsmouth and Coventry City would not ordinarily be something to be overly concerned about for Sunderland, but losing out to a Bristol Rovers side struggling for confidence and sitting in mid-table mediocrity was a crushing blow to the system for Phil Parkinson.

Parkinson did well to bite his lip in the manner he did at the Memorial Ground on Tuesday night, after watching a toothless and insipid display against a team which had won just one of its previous 15 games in League One.

While admitting his players didn’t get to grips with an occasion that was hardly a decider at either end of the table, and suggesting they lost their cool in the heat of the Bristol battle, he also steered away from really nailing those wearing the red and white shirt.

But make no mistake about it, losing to Bristol Rovers in the manner they did was not the sort of performance of a promotion winning team – in fact it was one struggling for confidence and direction in every department, raising concerns that a top six place may now even be slipping away.

Sunderland - who have already been unable to raise their game in crucial promotion tussles with Portsmouth and Coventry aware from home, as well as Fleetwood and Gillingham more recently - have now gone four matches without a win, having picked up just two points from the last available 12, to drop down to seventh ahead of this Saturday’s trip to Blackpool.

The Seasiders, like Rovers who have the same number of points in the bottom half, have had a run of poor form and while there have been recent improvements they have won just three of their last 18 games to fall from an early lofty position and out of contention to go up.

But the evidence against Bristol Rovers suggested it doesn’t matter who Sunderland are playing right now, they are short of the sort of belief that took them on an impressive run of just one defeat from 15 before the recent slump.

And Parkinson thinks his squad need to prove they can handle going away to places to deal with the extra desire there is within the ranks of the opposition to defeat the former Premier League club Sunderland in front of their own fans.

Even though there have been victories on the road this season, and under the former Bolton boss, Sunderland have suffered defeat in eight of those games and now they have lost three of their last four away from the Stadium of Light.

Bloomfield Road next and further disappointment there and Sunderland’s push for promotion will have taken another huge battering, so Parkinson knows they can ill-afford another slip-up at such a critical stage of the season.

He said: “I am reflecting on Tuesday’s game, the 90 minutes, nothing else. I am very disappointed and felt it was a game we could win. Like I always say, it is how we win, the way we will win and I don’t think we did that.

“There is plenty of time to get back into it but we have to play better than we did there. We have to handle the pressure of the situation better, as the season draws to a close.

“We have to handle the intensity of playing away from home which we haven’t done too badly with in recent times, over the last couple of months. But at Bristol we got caught up in it.”

If Sunderland can deliver a much-needed three points against Blackpool then it will at least give the players something positive to hold on to when they regroup during the international break, with the trip to Southend likely to be postponed because of call-ups.

Shrewsbury will be the visitors on April 4 to Wearside, when the seven-game run-in to the end of the season will be on the agenda and Sunderland know that to start that period still in touch with the top two is essential after falling out of the play-off places having played a game more already.

Parkinson took Kyle Lafferty off at half-time at Rovers fearing he would be red carded in the heat of battle, so Charlie Wyke was introduced. Will Grigg then made an appearance from the bench for the final few minutes for the first time since December.

“Will is a good lad, he has trained very well,” said Parkinson. “He has a great chance to be involved because he trains very well.”