SUNDERLAND’s promotion ambitions were stymied in March by an arbitrary cut-off point to last season. They cannot afford for the same thing to happen again.

No one knows whether this campaign will make it through to May. No one knows whether it will even reach the point where the season will be called and promotion places decided on positions in the table at the time.

The one certainty is that playing catch-up will not be the best option, so when points are sitting there begging to be grabbed as they were at The Valley, they have to be snatched with both hands.

Sunderland spurned that opportunity on Saturday. They cannot afford to do it very often in a race that will be won from the front. That should mean that whichever of Phil Parkinson’s strikers fires first will find himself in the line-up every week.

The partnership of Danny Graham and Aiden O’Brien was far too fluid and mobile for a makeshift Charlton defence, but when it came to the only moments that truly matter, it misfired.

Graham’s panicky slash at a perfect low cross from the excellent Josh Scowen three minutes before half-time which sent the ball ricocheting around the banks of empty seats behind the Charlton goal proved to be the vital miss.

It was one miss and one game, so under normal circumstances no reason for concern, but a normal sense of perspective may not apply this season.

The frustration was evident in Parkinson’s comments afterwards. He said: “The life of a striker, as everybody knows, is that you’ve got to keep getting in the six-yard box. If you miss chances, you’ve got to be brave enough to keep getting in there again.

“I believe we’ve got the strikers who have got that bravery. If they keep getting in there and we keep producing the quality, we’ll get goals.

“Danny and Aiden looked a threat in partnership. If you look at the strengths of both players they should link up well. One holds the ball up well, the other likes to run into the channels. It’s that final moment that we lacked. We should be talking about an excellent performance from the two front players. But they know they are paid to put the ball in the net.”

Tomorrow’s EFL Trophy game against Carlisle will no doubt give Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke the opportunity to convert whatever chances come their way and force Parkinson’s hand after the international break.

What is clear is that last season’s safety-first football away from home has been banished. Sunderland drove at Charlton throughout and ought to have had the game won at a canter before half-time.

A stunning one-handed reflex save from Ben Amos kept out a Bailey Wright header while the home side were indebted to Ben Watson for throwing his body in the path of a Graham shot after Amos had parried an effort from O’Brien.

Scowen, in particular, was benefitting from a system which sucked players into the middle of the pitch and left room on the outside for a succession of Black Cats players to exploit.

“The way we switched play and made the pitch big was great,” added Parkinson. “We had overloads in wide areas with Scowen and (Jordan) Willis, (Luke) O’Nien down one side, and (Lynden) Gooch and Denver (Hume)and Flanners (Tom Flanagan) down the other.”

The irony was that a match which should have been won could have been lost following the 73rd-minute dismissal of Flanagan for halting the run of Conor Washington when the Charlton striker was through on goal.

Sunderland’s determination not just to keep the home side out, but to keep pressing for a winner impressed both Parkinson and Charlton boss Lee Bowyer.

Bowyer said: “I think Sunderland will be up there at the end of the season. They have good experience, good legs and they are better than when we played them two seasons ago. They were braver than us on the ball, too.”

Parkinson can be pleased with a four-game unbeaten start prior to the international break. The midfield looks solid, while the new system which allows for waves of overlaps down the flanks is creating chances. The missing piece is a familiar one. And this season is not one for it to resurface again.