SINCE football was forced behind-closed-doors, Phil Parkinson has regularly bemoaned the absence of supporters from the Stadium of Light. On Saturday, however, it is impossible not to think that the empty stands were a blessing to the Sunderland boss and his players. Had fans been able to watch the Black Cats’ latest humiliation, it could easily have proved to be one of those afternoons from which a manager and even a club struggles to recover.

The lowest point in Sunderland’s history? Sadly, there have been plenty of contenders for that mantle in the last few years, but an FA Cup first-round defeat at the hands of a League Two side that had failed to win any of their previous 14 matches this season takes some beating. This was embarrassment on a mortifying scale, but with the league campaign resuming on Saturday with the Black Cats sitting just a point off the automatic promotion positions, Parkinson and his squad will be able to pick themselves up and go again.

Had fans been present on Saturday, however, things would almost certainly have been different. The simmering discontent that has been evident on message boards and internet forums for a while now might well have boiled over into something far more toxic. “You don’t know what you’re doing”. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt”. The repertoire might be well worn, but it still has the power to sting.

Steve Bruce was out as soon as the crowd turned in a game against Wigan Athletic, Gus Poyet never recovered from the mockery that accompanied an FA Cup defeat at Bradford City. Most Sunderland supporters appreciate that their club’s problems stem from the boardroom, and accept that until the ownership situation involving Stewart Donald is resolved, deep-rooted change will almost certainly prove elusive.

That does not mean they have to meekly accept defeat to the 90th-ranked team in the Football League though, and given that it would only have been the diehards in the stadium on FA Cup first-round day, Parkinson would have had some difficult questions to answer if, as surely would have been likely, the crowd had turned.

Instead, as he assessed the wreckage of his side’s latest exit from the FA Cup before the third-round stage – Sunderland have not made it to the entrance of the ‘big boys’ since dropping into League One – he was able to reflect on missed opportunities and poor balls into the box rather than anything more damaging or deep-rooted.

“We had a strong enough team to win,” said Parkinson, who made eight changes to his starting line-up, but was right in his assertion that the players selected should have made a much better fist of things. “I think over the course over the game we’ve put in enough quality deliveries into the box to win. Our decision-making wasn’t always great, and the quality wasn’t always great, but there was enough over 90 minutes to win.”

Parkinson is right that too many players underperformed, so perhaps the time has come to make some decisive calls on members of his squad. George Dobson’s form has regressed dramatically since the start of last season, to the point where it has surely become impossible to pair him in a central-midfield partnership with Max Power. In a game that demanded energy and an ability to attack on the front foot, Sunderland’s midfield was ponderous and predictable. Hence their inability to break down one of the worst teams in the Football League.

Will Grigg has surely run out of chances, such was the ineffectiveness of his attacking display once again. The Northern Irishman’s signing from Wigan has been a disaster, graphically highlighted on Netflix, and the time has surely come to draw a line under his time on Wearside. Whatever it takes in January, it would be best for all parties if he was to move on.

Chris Maguire still has a role to play, but it is not as a free-roaming ‘number ten’, which was the position he was assigned against Mansfield. Without responsibility, Maguire careers here, there and everywhere, achieving very little. He saw plenty of the ball at the weekend, but did next to nothing with it.

Sunderland were not bereft of chances, with Callum McFadzean’s adventurous play down the left providing the one positive, and things might well have been different had either of Danny Graham’s early chances ended up in the net rather than striking the woodwork. Graham prodded a shot against the post after Grigg laid the ball off into his path, before somehow heading McFadzean’s cross against the bar from two yards out when he seemed certain to open the scoring. It proved a crucial miss, with Sunderland failing to go as close again.

Mansfield steadied themselves after a shaky start, with George Lapslie scoring his side’s winner four minutes into the second half. The midfielder burst ahead of Dion Sanderson to head home Kellan Gordon’s cross.

It was the perfect start for Sunderland-born Nigel Clough, who was appointed as Mansfield boss on Friday. Clough was able to watch on and give his opinions from the stands – Parkinson should be relieved that thousands of others were not.