IT HAD all the makings of being the battle of the beleaguered bosses.
The producers at Sky Sports would have been salivating at the prospect of billing Sunday’s televised Molineux clash as the game with the highest possible stakes.
The victorious manager would remain, for at least a little longer, while the loser would teeter nervously to the precipice above the trapdoor.
But Steve Bruce’s dismissal on Wednesday has transformed the complexion of this weekend’s encounter from the sack race to the successor race.
Will Sunderland have, as increasingly likely, appointed a new man at the helm by kick-off? More importantly, will the cameras be able to catch a glimpse of him either in the stands or in the dug-out?
Immediately, there will be renewed scrutiny on the Black Cats players and their chances of making an early impression on their fresh-faced leader.
For a Wolves side, who have taken just four points from their last 10 games, it will be an ominous task – far more than if they were facing a Sunderland side wounded by defeat to Wigan.
Defeat for Wolves is highly unlikely to spell the end one of Bruce’s predecessors Mick McCarthy though, even if Wolves’ narrow two-point margin with the drop zone is overturned.
McCarthy may have plenty of detractors in the Black Country, shown by the venomous “You’re getting sacked in the morning” chants when his side trailed 2-0 against Swansea in October.
But crucially, chairman Steve Morgan is not one of them. The Scouser is a firm ally of McCarthy and the criticism of the former Ireland boss is understood to have made him even more determined to stand by the boss.
Morgan takes the long-term view that McCarthy has taken Wolves from the second tier to the Premier League on a relatively restrictive budget.
With finances likely to remain tight during the re-development of Molineux, McCarthy’s book balancing is likely to see him remain in favour, regardless of Wolves’ fortunes this season.
The problem for McCarthy, like Bruce, is that loyalty from the hierarchy doesn’t count for much if supporters continue to be disenchanted by results.
Wolves have suffered eight defeats in the last 10, with the defensive shortcomings of last season continuing despite the major summer acquisition of Roger Johnson.
The £4.5million ex-Birmingham centre-half has been troubled since arriving at Molineux, with many calling for the recall of ageing former Sunderland man Jody Craddock.
Skipper Johnson’s inability to replicate the form which saw him attract the attention of Liverpool during his time at St Andrew’s, has only prompted further questions of McCarthy.
Wolves will be boosted by the return from suspension of Jamie O’Hara and Stephen Hunt though, while Kevin Doyle could recover from a calf strain.
Those trio were key figures in last season’s perhaps fortuitous survival scrap and all provide an obvious goal threat to Sunderland this weekend.
The loss of Karl Henry is a blow though, with the no frills midfielder offering the legs and defensive protection to cover O’Hara’s attacking tendencies.
A midfield tussle between Henry and Lee Cattermole is never a pretty one, yet promised fireworks for a game of such magnitude.
Cattermole is likely to lead an unchanged Sunderland side, regardless of whether Eric Black, Mark Hughes or Martin O’Neill prevail over proceedings.
A new man will not have time to thoroughly assess those at his disposal, while Black would be wary of conducting wholesale tinkering, given his imput would have played a significant part in Bruce’s final team selection.
Not that there are many options to change things around in Sunderland’s line-up.
Sunderland’s faults against Wigan lay with the absence of a penalty box predator, rather than a significant deficiency in their build-up play.
Until the January transfer window or the return of Fraizer Campbell and Connor Wickham, that will remain the case, even if another reserve team hat-trick for Ryan Noble pushed him once more to the forefront for some contribution from the bench.
Yet the lack of confidence shown in the final third against Wigan will not necessarily affect proceedings tomorrow.
Those on show, the vast majority of which were Bruce signings, will have been distraught at the events of the week and determined to make amends for their former boss.
More importantly, they won’t want to be launched into the gutter by his successor.
Verdict: Away win