“FOOTBALL can be cruel,” mused Phil Parkinson, as he stood on the touchline at a darkening Keepmoat Stadium on Saturday night. “And that was a cruel one.”

Taken in isolation, with regards only to Sunderland’s game against Doncaster, the Black Cats boss was spot on. The concession of a stoppage-time equaliser to Rovers’ blundering striker Fejiri Okenabirhie was cruel given that Sunderland had been much the better side for the previous 90 minutes and were still stinging from the injustice of not having been awarded what should have been a stonewall penalty in the first half.

But when it comes to assessing the wider context of Sunderland’s current eighth position in the League One table, the cruelty of a one-off concession in South Yorkshire has to be posited against an acceptance that the Black Cats are pretty much where they deserve to be, and an acknowledgement that Saturday’s game, unpalatable outcome and all, was actually a pretty fair synopsis of where the Wearsiders find themselves ahead of a potentially transformative takeover that is expected to go through in the next few weeks.

This is where Sunderland are, and this is what Sunderland do. From the moment they dropped into League One two-and-a-half seasons ago, things have been the same. The Black Cats are one of the better teams in the third tier, but have never been the best. They are good enough to boss matches against the majority of their opponents, but of insufficient quality to routinely put matches to bed. They don’t concede a lot of goals, but the very fact they are made up of League One defenders means they are always liable to let one in. They never really score a hatful, and for all that they tend to dominate possession, they rarely, if ever, go in for the kill.

That was the story under Jack Ross, and it has continued under Phil Parkinson. The current boss has made tweaks here and there, both in terms of formation and personnel, but the overarching narrative has remained the same. Sunderland are a decent League One team, no more, no less. As a result, while they will generally win more games than they draw or lose, they will always be susceptible to slip-ups such as Saturday’s.

Two key questions leap out. The first is whether a change of ownership will alter things and make Sunderland clearly superior to their promotion rivals. The answer to that, in the short term at least, is that the new salary-cap regulations will make it almost impossible to enact transformative changes in the January transfer window, so for this season at least, things will remain pretty much as they are.

Question two is whether a change of manager would lead to an improvement. Social media is never a particularly scientific way to gauge supporters’ opinion, but it is the best measure available while fans are locked out of grounds and the evidence suggests more and more Sunderland fans have given up on the current boss. Conservative tactics, a reluctance to make decisive substitutions, a failure to get the best out of what is available to him – all are charges that on forums, chat rooms and radio phone-ins, have been laid at the manager’s door.

The counter-argument is that Parkinson is merely wrestling with the same problems that Ross had to try to counter, and that would be problematic no matter who was in charge. Is this Sunderland squad really any better than that of any of the other clubs battling for promotion at the top of League One? Or are Sunderland merely one of a batch of similar-standard teams scrapping to try to get out of the third tier? If the latter assessment is true, then a position three points off the automatic-promotion places is hardly horrendous.

A mounting sense of frustration amongst the fanbase is perfectly understandable, especially at a time when a couple of hours watching a matchday feed on a Saturday afternoon is one of the few releases available. But it should also be remembered that, in the last two-and-a-half years, Sunderland have spent a grand total of five weeks in League One’s automatic-promotion places, and a fortnight of that was an international break during the autumn of Ross’ first season in charge. Parkinson might be under-achieving, but it is not as though Sunderland’s position on the fringe of the play-off positions is a radical diversion from where they have been ever since they dropped out of the Championship.

“Look, the away form is good and we’re still unbeaten on our travels, which is a great return for us,” said Parkinson, attempting to cling to the positives in the wake of Saturday’s late setback. “But look, today we should be talking about three points and being off and running again.

“It’s funny, sometimes when you have a bit of a dip, as we’ve had through the cup game and with last Saturday’s defeat (to MK Dons), things do go against you. But, like I’ve always said, you’ve got to focus on performance levels, and we’ll come through the other side of it because we’re a good team.”

Sunderland’s first-half performance levels at the Keepmoat were arguably as high as they have been all season, with the Black Cats kicking on from a relatively sluggish start to dominate proceedings in the 20 minutes or so before half-time.

They should unquestionably have had a penalty when Joe Wright took a hack at Lynden Gooch after the Sunderland forward had nipped ahead of him to reach Luke O’Nien’s deflected cross – “How he has not given the penalty there, I don’t know,” said Parkinson. “They’re big moments in games, and refs have to get those decisions right” – but they claimed a fully-merited lead two minutes before the break.

Their goal was a cracker, with Grant Leadbitter easing on to Gooch’s lay-off before arrowing an exocet of a 30-yard strike into the top left-hand corner.

That should have been the cue for Sunderland to kick on in the second half, but as has been the case on far too many occasions under both Ross and Parkinson, they began to drop deep in an attempt to hold on to their lead. For all that they continued to dominate possession in the second half, the only chance they created saw Gooch turn on the edge of the area before firing in a low shot that Joe Lumley saved.

Elliot Embleton’s introduction with eight minutes left was much too late to change the tide of a game that had slowly ebbed towards Doncaster, and while the visitors’ equaliser still came somewhat out of the blue, it could be argued that Sunderland invited it onto themselves, such was their growing passivity.

Tom Flanagan’s failure to keep tabs on Brad Halliday proved crucial, and after Bailey Wright got into a tangle trying to deal with the full-back’s cross, Okenabirhie was able to bundle the ball home from close range.

“We’ll look back at it,” said Wright. “It happens quickly. Myself, I can probably clear it better. It’s a difficult one, can we stop them getting in the box? Like with many goals you can rewind it back and look at many things. We limited them to very little, but sometimes all you need is a tiny sniff of a chance and it can change a game. But we can’t let it deflate us too much. As much as it hurts right now, we have to pick ourselves up and go again.”