SUNDERLAND have proved they can outplay teams in League One this season – after Saturday’s defeat to Charlton, they also have to show they are prepared to outbattle them.

As Lee Johnson rightly stated after the game, the Black Cats’ first home loss of the season owed much to some unduly lenient refereeing from Darren Drysdale. Fouls went unpunished – Johnson was particularly incensed by a first-half challenge from goalscorer Jayden Stockley on Tom Flanagan he described as a “head-butt” – and as a result, the match quickly descended into a wrestling contest, with Charlton’s superior physicality coming through.

Yet while Johnson is right to bemoan the standard of officiating, he must also acknowledge that life in League One can sometimes be like that. This month’s four-goal thrashing at Portmsouth has largely been written off because of the monsoon-like conditions, but it was also the first game this season where it could be argued that Sunderland’s players were bullied off the ball. Saturday’s was the second.

Johnson has filled his side with neat, technical footballers, and in the main, the approach seems to be serving Sunderland well. As winter sets in though, and the standard of the League One pitches inevitably dips, there will be times where the Black Cats have to go toe-to-toe with their opponents to grind out a result. Are they capable of doing that? At the moment, the jury remains out.

“It was like a judo match half the time, and you’re left wondering what you’re coaching your players,” said Johnson. “Are we coaching our players to wrestle, scrap, elbow, headbutt whatever? Or are we going to get that level of protection from the referees in their decision-making?

“I don’t mind a bit of rough and tumble, but I need to know what I’m telling my players and how to coach those players. Also, it dictates what type of players to sign if we’re allowing that level of contact.”

Johnson clearly feels that Charlton’s players overstepped the line, but it can also be argued that they simply got a better handle on what the referee was going to allow and adjusted their level of physicality accordingly. Either way, it is a lesson Sunderland are going to have to learn if they are going to finish in the top two.

They could also do with brushing up on their decision-making in the final third because for all that Charlton might have won the physical battle at the weekend, Sunderland’s players still had more than enough possession and territorial dominance to have at least kept their unbeaten home run going.

Instead, their attacking players made a succession of poor decisions – Aiden McGeady and Aiden O’Brien were especially culpable – and when chances did present themselves, they were spurned.

Dennis Cirkin was unfortunate with the second-half effort that thudded against the crossbar, but O’Brien wasted a good early chance by shooting at Craig MacGillivray, McGeady and Leon Dajaku failed to find the target from promising second-half positions and while Ross Stewart might have had a penalty when his shot struck Jason Pearce’s arm, this was not a day when the Scotsman was at his clinical best.

As a result, Stockley’s 66th-minute header proved sufficient to settle things, with the striker out-jumping the Sunderland defence to head home Jonathan Leko’s cross.

It initially appeared as though the assistant had flagged for a foul, but while Stockley might well have been leaning on Flanagan, it would have been a harsh decision to rule out his header.