IF Sunderland are to achieve anything this season, they are going to have to learn how to hold on to a lead. For the fourth game in a row last night, the Black Cats opened the scoring. For the fourth game in a row, they failed to convert their lead into a victory.

Whether it is an ingrained reluctance to go for the jugular, Phil Parkinson’s refusal to make bold substitutions or a mental fragility that means defensive errors begin to creep in during the closing stages of a game, Sunderland are seemingly unable to see things out. As a result, they remain outside the play-off places as they prepare to head into December. The season is approaching its halfway stage, with the Black Cats pretty much where they have been ever since Parkinson was appointed.

They looked to be heading for a much-needed victory when Charlie Wyke headed them into a 59th-minute lead at Fleetwood last night, with the striker capitalising on some hesitation from home goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler.

But as was the case in Saturday’s draw at Doncaster, they were unable to shut up shop in the closing stages. A routine ball into the box should have been cleared, but none of Sunderland’s centre-halves acted decisively to deal with the danger, and Callum Connolly was able to sweep home a low finish.

As a result, it was familiarly frustrating tale. This is a Sunderland side that have proved they are able to match any team in the division. Actually beating them, though, is a different story.

Phil Parkinson has tried a variety of attacking formations in an attempt to increase his side’s goalscoring threat, but the fact he is still having to roll the dice speaks volumes. Sunderland struggle to kill teams off, and the harsh reality is that, since the start of the season, none of their forwards have made a compelling case for a sustained run in the team. That said, however, they have not exactly been presented with a hatful of chances.

Parkinson paired Wyke and Danny Graham in a front two for the first time last night, with Chris Maguire dropping back into a deeper role in midfield, and with two physical strikers to aim at, Sunderland’s defenders and midfielders had clearly been instructed to go long whenever possible.

The ploy had mixed success, although it would eventually result in Wyke’s 59th-minute effort that broke the deadlock. Both of Sunderland’s forwards made a decent fist of trying to hold the ball up whenever it was fired into them, even if, for the most part, Fleetwood’s muscular centre-half pairing of Charlie Mulgrew and Tom Edwards appeared relatively happy countering Sunderland’s aerial threat. Rarely, if ever, were they tasked with having to deal with someone running in behind them, which has been a weakness of Sunderland’s attacking play all season.

While the Black Cats’ front pairing battled away gamely, the visitors’ best moments of a keenly-contested first half actually came from the marauding runs of Denver Hume down the left.

Playing as a wing-back, but pushing on as an orthodox winger whenever possible, Hume whistled a fifth-minute shot just past the upright before going close again three minutes later when he broke into the penalty area to reach Wyke’s through ball, only for his driven low strike to be saved by Leutwiler.

With Remi Matthews also being called into action in the opening ten minutes to keep out a first-time volley from Danny Andrew, who was unmarked on the edge of the box from a corner, the game began at a frantic pace.

The action quickly settled though, and chances became much more difficult to fashion as the two closely-matched midfields effectively cancelled each other out.

With Grant Leadbitter patrolling the area in front of Sunderland’s three centre-halves, and Sam Finley performing the same job for Fleetwood, who also lined up with five at the back, neither side was able to create much in the final third for much of the night.

There was a scare for the visitors shortly before half-time, when Bailey Wright diverted Mulgrew’s driven free-kick just past his own post as he attempted to clear, but in the main, the Black Cats defended resolutely.

The same was true of Joey Barton’s home side at the other end, although Sunderland’s lack of attacking vision was unquestionably a factor in Fleetwood’s ability to shut up shop. While the Wearsiders huffed and puffed in an attempt to engineer a breakthrough, they were crying out for someone capable of threading a pass through their opponents’ well-drilled rearguard.

That said, however, they were generally solid in their defensive third, a quality that stood them in good stead in the early weeks of the season, but that hasn’t always been in evidence in the last month or so. It is surely telling that the return of Conor McLaughlin and Tom Flanagan from international duty has coincided with something of a defensive upturn.

It always looked as though it was going to take a moment of magic or a defensive error to break the deadlock, and while it was the latter that eventually contributed to Sunderland’s opener, the former almost resulted in Fleetwood scoring ten minutes before the Black Cats found the net.

Fleetwood midfielder Callum Camps picked up a loose ball 25 yards out, and without really looking up, he fired in a superb effort that cannoned off the crossbar.

Matthews could do nothing about that strike, but the Sunderland goalkeeper was at his most alert seconds later to prevent his side falling behind.

Having rebounded off the woodwork, the ball dropped kindly for Paddy Madden, who was able to float a cross into the six-yard box. Half-time substitute Ched Evans thought he had scored when he stretched out a leg to prod goalwards, but Matthews got down to keep the ball out.

Fleetwood enjoyed their best spell of the game at the start of the second half, but with Wright winning a couple of crucial headers, Sunderland held firm.

They went close themselves in the 56th minute, with Wyke glancing a header wide after getting to McLaughlin’s cross ahead of his marker, and were celebrating the opening goal of the night three minutes later.

It was one of their long balls that came up trumps, with Flanagan launching a pass over the top of the Fleetwood defence to send Wyke galloping clear. Leutwiler should have dealt with the danger, but the former Middlesbrough goalkeeper hesitated, enabling Wyke to nip ahead of him and head the ball into an empty net.

Sunderland’s challenge from that point onwards was to try to hold on to their lead, but just as they had failed to press home their advantage during their Papa John’s Trophy tie with Fleetwood earlier in the month, so they found themselves pegged back again.

They were ahead for just 14 minutes before Fleetwood equalised, with the scruffiness of the home side’s leveller only adding to their sense of frustration. Sunderland’s defenders had two opportunities to deal with a ball into the box, but they were unable to clear their lines and Connolly swooped on the loose ball before sweeping a low finish into the bottom corner.