TWO names overshadowed all others in the race to succeed Steve Bruce.
Although Martin O’Neill was always the overwhelming favourite to be appointed, Mark Hughes was the strong outside bet waiting in the wings.
But just three days before the anniversary of Bruce’s dismissal, this is a galling time for both Hughes and O’Neill.
Hughes finds himself on the soccer scrap heap after failing so miserably at QPR.
A move to the Championship or overseas is the best the former Manchester City manager can hope for after seeing his managerial reputation reduced to tatters.
While O’Neill is far from arriving in management purgatory – despite the efforts of the rumour mill on Saturday night – the pressure is rising and will only intensify if Sunderland succumb to a fourth successive Stadium of Light defeat tonight.
When QPR visited the Stadium of Light in March, they were cannon fodder for a mentally-jaded Sunderland side, who coasted to a 3-1 victory, albeit the visitors were reduced to 10 men through the idiotic dismissal of ex-Black Cat Djibril Cisse.
But that was the last time Sunderland can claim to have genuinely roused their home fans.
Only one Stadium of Light success has come in the Premier League since then, and even that was a grind against an unfortunate Wigan side.
Sunderland desperately need to lift the mood by sending their supporters home full of glee by romping to a win.
But there looks little chance of a straightforward victory tonight. As in March, QPR find themselves firmly entrenched in relegation troubles, yet boosted significantly by the arrival of Harry Redknapp.
There was indeed a “triffic” improvement from the Premier League’s basement boys as Arry watched from the stands at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Predictably, given Hughes’ policy of acquiring mercenaries, there has been precious little unity around QPR this season and that has proved their undoing. But at least against the league leaders, QPR showed some willingness to hunt in packs and defend as a collective.
That will lend an ominous air to Sunderland supporters tonight.
But despite Redknapp’s assortment of pals in the media, it has to be remembered that he is no miracle worker.
This is a QPR side utterly devoid of confidence – the way they shipped three goals in eight minutes against Manchester United was testament to that.
In central defence, QPR badly lack pace with the aged duo of Ryan Nelson and Clint Hill, and up front, Cisse has passed that honeymoon stage where he always seems to thrive before descending into utter mediocrity.
Although Sunderland are not blessed by the mid-table security they possessed when they triumphed on QPR’s last visit to Wearside, neither are the Black Cats in dire straights, despite all the doom-mongering.
Sunderland’s performances in their last three games have shown a marked improvement and providing they don’t allow their confidence to plummet after Saturday’s loss to West Brom, they have more than enough to secure only a second home win of the campaign.
O’Neill faces two key decisions though after losing the two key figures in the dressing room.
With continuing injury worries over Titus Bramble, Matt Kilgallon is in pole position to replace John O’Shea and has always proved a more than able deputy when called upon by O’Neill.
But Lee Cattermole’s loss is arguably a far more significant one.
Sunderland’s midfield has struggled whenever the skipper has been missing this season and his absence was acutely felt when he limped off against West Brom.
Craig Gardner and Jack Colback look the most likely duo to line-up in the middle of the park, although the merits of David Vaughan must be considered by O’Neill too.
Hearteningly, though, Sunderland have begun to rediscover the scoring touch and if they can get that crucial early goal, the pressure should begin to lift a touch more.
Verdict: Home win