YOU had to sympathise with Adam Johnson.
After an England manager dared to make a rare visit to the North East, all Johnson would have been hoping for was a decent platform from his team-mates in which to demonstrate the form which saw him crowned Premier League Player of the Month.
In fairness, Johnson was among a very small minority of those in red and white who did themselves any credit against Hull City yesterday. But he was constantly being forced to conjure a miracle from the most unpromising of situations.
Phil Bardsley and Wes Brown both have to take a share of the responsibility for that after Sunderland’s red-card misery against Hull City this season continued.
It was a bafflingly hapless back-pass from the in-form Bardsley, while Brown had to curb his natural reaction to bring down Shane Long. It would have been far better to let the hugely impressive Republic of Ireland striker score than be reduced to 10 men so early on.
But Gus Poyet’s immediate response, which prompted much head-scratching in the stands, didn’t help Johnson either.
The obvious player to sacrifice for Brown’s indirect replacement, Santiago Vergini, seemed to be Liam Bridcutt.
It would have left Sunderland more open defensively without that protective presence in front of the back four, yet at least the Black Cats would have retained the shape which has seen them enjoy so much success under Poyet.
But taking off Fabio Borini – whose work-rate surely made him the ideal player to keep on when down to 10 men – left Sunderland far too predictable as an attacking force.
Poyet moved Johnson into the hole behind Jozy Altidore, rather than operating from the right flank where he has thrived since the turn of the year, while neither full-back were able to provide any ammunition from the flanks.
Hull knew that as long as they kept a close watch on Johnson, there were few other players on the pitch that could seriously worry them.
Despite the early blow of losing Brown and the questionable reconfiguration of the side, Sunderland didn’t help themselves.
Regardless of the numerical disadvantage, Sunderland flopped with their chronic inability to keep possession or muster any semblance of tempo to put Hull on the back foot.
The Tigers could easily have enjoyed a far more handsome victory with Long and Nikica Jelavic picking the holes in a stretched Sunderland back four.
Certainly, Steve Bruce couldn’t have wished for a much tamer resistance in his return to the Stadium of Light.
Defeat could be costly for Sunderland.
Despite the euphoria of the last few weeks, a return of 10 points from four games and progress into the Capital One Cup final, Poyet’s side – who will have Brown suspended for the next two matches – are far from out of the mire, particularly if they reproduce performances like this.
Given that Sunderland face trips to Manchester City, Arsenal and potentially Liverpool – if both sides are knocked out of the FA Cup next weekend – in their next three league games, it made the Hull one all the more important.
To lose to the Tigers AGAIN the week after derby joy after AGAIN seeing men sent off is a scenario which Sunderland could ill-afford to contemplate.
* Look out for derby-day memories, letters, away guide to Manchester City, Yesterdays and much more in the online Football Echo - it’s available now online on this website