WHEN STEVEN Fletcher last found the net at the DW Stadium in January, Premier League survival looked a mere formality for Sunderland.
A nine-point cushion with the relegation zone looked insurmountable, with the Black Cats needing to average less than a point per game from the remaining fixtures to comfortably keep their top-flight status.
Only a horrifyingly miserable run would have thrust Sunderland back into the mire.
Well, they have endured one; arguably as bad as anyone could have imagined after just two points from the last six games.
Nominally, the buffer with the relegation zone remains six points, yet Wigan’s game in hand, plus Aston Villa narrowing the gap with Sunderland to just three, makes the situation increasingly precarious.
Consider that the Black Cats face successive games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Newcastle after next weekend’s crunch clash with Norwich City too, and Sunderland are genuinely back in the dogfight.
The travelling supporters who had paid £45 for a ticket in the creaky Loftus Road away stand gave Sunderland’s players short-shrift at the final whistle and they were well within their rights.
QPR were understandably buoyant after the previous weekend’s victory at Southampton and boasted the hunger, persistence and pace which Sunderland lacked.
Yet the Wearsiders were still below par, never forcing Rob Green into a save during the second half.
At the interval, Martin O’Neill’s side had been left with a strange set of emotions.
After being pegged back by an equaliser boasting such a healthy degree of fortune, the Black Cats could feasibly have felt aggrieved.
But it would have been harsh for the hosts to be trailing at the break.
Yes, the leveller provided the catalyst for a renewed charge towards the end of the half, when Harry Redknapp’s side had been left shell-shocked by falling behind.
But both during the opening 20 minutes and the final 15 minutes of the half, it was almost one-way traffic on the Sunderland goal.
Sunderland were alarmingly open defensively and QPR’s winger revelled in the space afforded them to attack the Black Cats’ full-backs.
Craig Gardner made the mistake of sitting off ex-Sunderland transfer target Junior Hoilett and the bulk of QPR’s attacking play came through the former Blackburn winger.
By being granted space, Hoilett was simply able to build up a head of steam as he ran at Gardner, with the makeshift right-back toiling to contain him.
On the opposite side, Andros Townsend’s speed of foot caused similar problems and although his shot took a fortuitous deflection off John O’Shea, he was still granted the room to burst inside and let fly.
Such was Sunderland’s battle to contain QPR in the closing stages of the first half, that Martin O’Neill took the desperate measure of moving Danny Graham to the right and tucking Stephane Sessegnon inside, purely to have someone capable of linking midfield and attack while the ball kept coming back at the visitors.
Sunderland were more secure in the immediate exchanges after the break and when Danny Rose replaced the ineffectual Graham, the 4-4-1-1 system subdued the hosts.
Townsend’s wonder goal for 2-1 came out of nothing, but Sessegnon had left the on-loan Spurs winger utterly unmarked as he tried to latch onto Fletcher’s header.
The same applied when Jermaine Jenas struck to grab the crucial third to seal the victory.
Loftus Road bounced when Jenas’s shot found the bottom corner. Wearside is anything but bouncing.
* Don’t miss the Football Echo – out today – the best buy of the weekend. We’ve got reaction to yesterday’s match plus much more.