Someone at the Football League must have a sense of humour. With Sunderland two defeats away from equalling Darwen's record losing streak of 18 League matches, Tony Leake was dispatched from the very same Blackburn suburb to referee at the Stadium of Light yesterday.
At the final blast of the Darwen man's whistle, Mick McCarthy's side were one game closer to the 104-year-old black mark. A sixth-minute goal by Noel Whelan proved sufficient to consign Sunderland to their 17th successive defeat in League action. They have attained only one point in 2003, from a goalless draw at home to Blackburn on 11 January. If they lose at Preston next Saturday they will have a place in the record books alongside a Lancashire club who pioneered the money game in English football, when they hired two Scottish professionals to play in an FA Cup quarter-final against Old Etonians, but who were playing at Flixton in the Second Division of the North West Counties League yesterday.
It is not a history lesson Sunderland need but an education in the rudiments of the game, such as the stringing together of a pass or two, and the putting of the ball in the net. They have not scored a League goal now for nine hours and 20 minutes - unlike Kevin Phillips, who rediscovered his lost touch in front of goal yesterday, in the red and white of Southampton.
Sunderland beat Mansfield in the Carling Cup on Wednesday night, but even at this embryonic stage of the season their supporters (24,877 turned up yesterday, 10,000 down on last season's average) will be thinking of another Wednesday - Sheffield Wednesday and their fall from grace to the Second Division. "If you have no points after two games people will talk about relegation," McCarthy acknowledged. "That has to be the shock tactic for all of us."
The Sunderland manager could draw some encouragement from the assurance debutant Gary Breen brought to the Sunderland defence. His team, though, played some depressingly dire stuff after Whelan struck his early blow for Millwall, bundling in the loose ball after Mart Poom blocked a shot by Neil Harris.
The trouble for Sunderland was a lack of presence in midfield, where Millwall, and Tim Cahill in particular, enjoyed free rein before the break. The only threat Sunderland mustered in a familiarly pedestrian first-half performance was a free-kick by Sean Thornton, saved comfortably by Tony Warner.
Millwall ought to have had the game wrapped up but their failure to further their advantage gave Sunderland a chance of salvation after the interval. They might have snatched the opportunity, too. Warner had to stretch to keep out a Thornton free-kick and Stuart Nethercott was obliged to clear a Matty Piper shot from the Millwall goalmouth.
As it was, though, McCarthy was left kicking over a water bottle in frustration at pitch-side. The least his team need now is a bit of bottle.
Sunderland 0 Millwall 1
Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 24,877Reuse content