FOR Sunderland, 2022 is bringing only frustration so far: Three matches played, none won, three chances missed to go top of League One.

The reaction of their players at full-time, after an away victory had slipped away at the finish for the second successive Saturday, told its own story.

Leon Dajaku sat in the centre circle, looking a picture of despair, for a good minute before he was yanked to his feet.

One moment of slackness had ruined a weekend. For 84 minutes, Sunderland had done all they had needed to do; they had probed patiently for openings, defended doggedly when required, stood up to the physical challenge of their hosts and then found a breakthrough.

Aiden O’Brien’s goal, scored less than three minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute, had a little luck about it, with a decent 25-yard strike made unsaveable by the looping deflection it took off Accrington defender Michael Nottingham.

But it was a goal the visitors had worked hard for, and it should have been enough to secure victory and the league leadership.

When the home side then lost defender Ross Sykes to two utterly avoidable yellow cards – one for dissent at a penalty appeal rejected, the second for a cynical but unnecessary drag back on Ross Stewart – it seemed as if all Sunderland had to do was close the game out.

So what went wrong? Tom Flanagan took the bulk of the blame for Accrington’s equaliser, but head coach Lee Johnson was quick to look at the bigger picture.

“We’ve cost ourselves with an individual error,” he said. “But not only an individual error – there was also an error of organisation from our own set play. That’s two goals we’ve conceded in two games from our own corner.”

Certainly, it was extraordinary to see a team with ambitions to reach the Championship concede a goal so basic.

After a short corner ended with a cross that Toby Savin grabbed out of the air, it only needed one low kick down the centre of the field from Accrington’s goalkeeper to take out all ten of Sunderland’s outfield players.

Flanagan wasn’t set properly, and was positioned too far forward, to deal with the possibility of a quick counter-attack, and so was off-balance as he waved a leg at the ball. Matt Butcher raced clear, and squared for Mitch Clark to tap in his first Accrington goal since a summer move from Leicester City.

Clark could hardly believe his luck, and no wonder. How on earth could Sunderland have been set up so badly to deal with a break? It was the sort of goal a team concede when they’re chasing a game. To lose a lead in that manner when 1-0 up, with a man advantage, in the final six minutes, will have hurt Johnson and his players deeply.

It was a shame that the victory had got away, because there had been plenty of positives up until that point.

Johnson is starting to get some players back; Bailey Wright was up for the fight at right-back on his return from injury, while goalkeeper Thorben Hoffmann, now recovered from Covid, made a useful first-half stop to turn over a Colby Bishop header that was dipping just beneath the bar.

O’Brien, just over his own bout of Covid, put in a lively display that was capped by his first goal since October.

Of those not struck down recently by injury or illness, centre-back Callum Doyle showed no fear in standing up to Bishop’s threat in the air, and the home side’s physical approach.

And even on one of his quieter afternoons, top scorer Stewart still carried an element of danger, with an early downward header brilliantly pushed away by Savin after a good cross from the left by Lynden Gooch.

Yet all of that, added together, still wasn’t enough for victory. And Johnson summed up the reason why in a handful of words.

“We have to put in 95-minute performances,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.” Fail to get that right, and Sunderland’s 2022 disappointments will only continue.