THE PENDULUM swung between hope and resignation during the early stages of Gus Poyet’s reign at the Stadium of Light.
The one step forwards, two steps backwards, pattern of Sunderland’s inconsistency left supporters pledging that relegation was a certainty after a defeat one week and then vowing that the great escape was on following a victory the next.
But after a return of 10 points from four Premier League outings prior to Saturday’s defeat, and success in the Capital One Cup semi-final, it would be ludicrously pessimistic to predict that Sunderland are again on a collision course with the Championship after one loss with 10 men for more than 85 minutes.
Unquestionably, this was a result with big repercussions, not least the sight of relegation rivals Hull gaining a yard in the battle for survival.
With Sunderland facing trips to Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool – if neither side reaches the FA Cup sixth round – in their next three league outings, the Black Cats desperately needed a third successive win on Saturday to create a buffer with the bottom three.
Their failure to do so is likely to see Poyet’s men occupying a place in the drop zone when they head to Wembley for the League Cup final, unless Cardiff, West Brom and Fulham maintain current form, albeit the latter snatched a point at Old Trafford yesterday.
But over recent weeks, Sunderland have proved there is the ability, spirit and dogged determination among Poyet’s ranks to conquer what at one stage looked an unwinnable battle.
There will be far more twists and turns to come yet in this bloated battle against the drop.
Defeat was frustrating, yet far more concerning than coming away empty-handed, was more evidence of Sunderland’s problems at the Stadium of Light.
The fourth-minute dismissal of Wes Brown – the third fastest sending-off in Premier League history – offered plenty of mitigation for the Black Cats after the best player on the pitch, Shane Long, pounced on Phil Bardsley’s baffling back pass.
Any team would struggle with 10 men for such a large portion of the game.
But regardless of the numerical disadvantage, there was a general malaise surrounding Sunderland – no energy, no tempo, no ability to keep possession and a reliance on Adam Johnson to conjure a miracle in front of watching England boss Roy Hodgson.
It’s not the first time that can be said about Sunderland on their own turf over recent weeks.
Poyet’s side are arguably better suited in style to playing away from home where they can maintain their defensive solidity and hit teams on the counter-attack.
When the onus is on them to break down the opposition, they have struggled – no goals scored in Stadium of Light clashes against Norwich, Aston Villa and Hull, while it was a desperately nervy success over 10-man Stoke City.
Sunderland, beaten eight times at home in 13 matches this term, have now used up their three lives over the last month-and-a-half when facing their relegation battle peers. There can be no more missed chances.
To his credit, Steve Bruce managed to get through his post-match press conference without gloating or mentioning Geordies, expectations, or a 10th-placed finish.
But without needing to resort to his calculator, Bruce prophecised that three more wins would be sufficient for Hull to avoid relegation.
He’s probably right.
Nine points would take the Tigers to 36; throw in a couple of draws and they would reach the late 30s. In a relegation battle which has so many contenders, it’s unlikely that the hallowed tally of 40 will be necessary.
But if Hull need three wins, then Sunderland require four. Given next month’s trip to Norwich is the only remaining away game against a side outside of the top seven, the bulk of the Black Cats’ victories have to come at the Stadium of Light.
In all probability, Sunderland will need to win three or four of their pressure cooker Wearside encounters against West Brom, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Cardiff and Swansea.
Bardsley and Brown have to share the responsibility for the failure to get one of those crucial wins against Hull, but so, too, does Poyet himself.
The Uruguayan has made few errors since taking charge last October, yet deciding to sacrifice Fabio Borini, rather than one of the central midfielders, after Brown’s red card played straight into Bruce’s hands.
Had Borini remained on the field, Sunderland would have retained their shape and boasted another attacking presence for Hull to worry about.
But taking off Borini to bring on replacement centre-half Santiago Vergini and moving Adam Johnson into the hole made Sunderland far too predictable.
Hull knew that as long as they kept Johnson under close attention, there would be little attacking threat from the hosts.
Without that extra wide man too, it made Liam Bridcutt’s role largely redundant. There was no-one to sweep the ball to on the flanks other than the full-backs, who were both below par.
With Bruce using ex-Sunderland midfielder David Meyler in a narrow wide left role, Poyet was clearly worried about the Black Cats being outnumbered in the middle of the park.
But, as a result, Sunderland were outmanned out wide – right-sided pairing Ahmed Elmohamady and Liam Rosenior giving Marcos Alonso by far his most uncomfortable afternoon since arriving at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland’s inability to muster any attacking threat meant the ball kept coming back at them, too, and that spelled danger with January arrivals Long and Nikica Jelavic up front for the Tigers.
Few Premier League sides boast an orthodox front two, yet Hull showed on Saturday that there is still a place for an old-fashioned 4-4-2.
Both strikers gave a stretched Sunderland defence the runaround and could easily have added to their tally.
Admittedly, Hull received a hefty slice of fortune when Maynor Figueroa’s wayward shot took a huge deflection off Vergini to land on a plate for Jelavic to net the killer second goal.
But you make your own luck and Sunderland again proved the masters of self-inflicted injuries – a sixth sending-off of the season and a 12th goal conceded from a set piece.
Defeat is not a fatal wound for Poyet’s men.
But unless they find a long-term antidote to their home sickness and produce the intensity needed to raise the Stadium of Light roof, Sunderland will face an uphill battle to reach the finishing line for safety.