FOR those of us who come to praise rather than bury them, Sunderland are offering nothing to cling on to right now.
And it’s impossible to ignore any longer an implosion in form and results which will send the Black Cats back to the Championship unless it is arrested.
While arguments in defence of some of their recent reverses were either ropey or robust – depending on your viewpoint – at least such arguments could be made.
Yesterday’s performance against Norwich City was indefensible and laid bare just how much and how quickly Sunderland are unravelling.
Of all the teams in the Premier League, Sunderland’s recent form is the poorest.
They are in freefall.
And after watching their displays against QPR and Norwich City in consecutive weeks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Sunderland supporter still confident of their side staying up.
It is hard for them to take, and the loudspeaker announcement at the final whistle reminding Sunderland fans to renew their season cards could hardly have been more poorly timed.
The announcer should at least have had the decency to suggest there are likely to be more games next season ...
Take Simon Mignolet out of this current side and it’s hard to find a single Sunderland player you could hang your hat on with any confidence right now.
And if you had to find one player to sum up the malaise, it would be Adam Johnson.
The £10million England winger is in danger of being labelled the new Tore Andre Flo – a player who looked the business coming on as a substitute in a Champions League side but who failed to rise to the challenge when given responsibility from the opening whistle.
The ineffectual wideman, though, was far from the only one culpable on a day when, for once, all good fortune went in Sunderland’s favour yet they still almost contrived to lose the game.
It’s not just the results that have failed to inspire.
The performances this season have too often been disjointed and unconvincing.
Sunderland are less than the sum of their parts and Martin O’Neill, still bidding to find a winning formula, made three changes to the side which lost to QPR, but kept the same 4-4-2 formation.
Carlos Cuellar and Danny Rose replaced Titus Bramble and Jack Colback in the back four, while David Vaughan’s play-making skills got the nod over Alfred N’Diaye’s athletic muscularity.
It was a positive line-up and Norwich, winners of only one game on their trav els all season, understandably adopted a defensive formation.
They went 4-5-1 with leading scorer Grant Holt relegated to the bench in favour of pacy striker Kei Kamara up front and former Sunderland defender Michael Turner in the heart of defence.
As they had done against QPR, Sunderland started brightly, but a poorly directed pass from John O’Shea, who played the ball into touch under no pressure, encouraged Norwich into the game.
It was a scrappy match, but, just as Sunderland seemed to be regaining some momentum, midway through the half, they lost their way.
For all their attacking intent, they had had only a shot sliced wickedly wide by Stephane Sessegnon in the 23rd minute after good work from Danny Graham to show for their efforts.
O’Shea had headed a Johnson corner wide from a narrow angle a yard out earlier in the game and Steven Fletcher and Graham had combined to force keeper Mark Bunn into a brave, diving save, but these were little more than half-chances.
Norwich were resilient in defence, if restrained and limited going forward, and their biggest threat all afternoon came from the in-swinging corners of Robert Snodgrass.
Sunderland conceded too many of them and it was from their fifth, just 26 minutes in, that the Wearsiders conceded the opening goal – but the concession was down to poor defending rather than pressure from the visitors.
Norwich had only one striker on the pitch, but Kamara was utterly unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box when he headed Snodgrass’s right-wing corner goalwards.
The ball was going in anyway, but insult was added to injury when 5ft 6in Wes Hoolahan, similarly unmarked, headed the ball into the roof of the net on the goal-line.
No-one could argue it hadn’t been coming.
Sunderland replied through a move started and finished by Rose which the England Under-21 man skied after good work from Sessegnon.
The fear was that, with the crowd getting restless, Sunderland would struggle to get back into the game, but they were handed a dramatic advantage on the half-hour when keeper Bunn was sent off for handling outside his area.
Graham had forced the error, chasing Turner’s under-powered back header.
And for all the keeper’s protestations that the ball had struck his chest first, there was no denying his arm had affected the direction of the ball.
It was a correct decision by referee Chris Foy and a great one for Sunderland who now had an hour to go at Norwich, who withdrew goalscorer Hoolahan in favour of substitute keeper Lee Camp, who was called on to make his Premier League debut.
Despite that, Norwich were looking relatively comfortable until the 38th minute when Sebastien Bassong handled John O’Shea’s long ball forward.
Once again a decision that was at first questionable, proved to be the correct one – Bassong argued it had hit his chest, but replays showed the ball had also rolled down, and been controlled, by his arm.
Gardner strode up to the spot and nervelessly converted his fourth penalty in a row, driving his right-foot shot powerfully into Camp’s top right-hand corner.
Rookie Premier League keeper or not, no-one was saving such a well-struck spot-kick.
Sunderland failed to lay siege to Norwich’s goal in the minutes that followed, though they went close when Seb Larsson’s long-range pile-driver was palmed to the feet of Graham, who drove his shot into the turf and wide.
It was that sort of day for Graham, whose all-round game was good apart from the area he most needed to excel in.
Still, hopes were high that Sunderland’s numbers advantage would pay dividends in the second half.
It proved to be a false hope as the home side enjoyed plenty of possession but provided little in the way of precision
Too often the ball was moved sideways and backwards before an over-hit or under-hit cross.
Too often, whenever there was a decent delivery there was no-one in the box to capitalise.
Sunderland’s energy levels threatened to drop again, but, just before the hour, the lively Gardner tested Camp with a rising shot from the right which was palmed wide at the near post.
Norwich changed tack, bringing on the physical presence of Holt for Kamara in the 64th minute, but five minutes later came the moment which should have handed the advantage back to the visitors when Rose handled Russell Martin’s cross on the edge of his area.
It was too close to call for the officials, but replays showed Rose was inside the area when he handled and Norwich deserved more than the free-kick they were awarded.
Had a penalty been awarded against Sunderland and converted, there would likely have been no way back, for the home side were far from convincing in the closing stages.
With a quarter of an hour remaining and frustrations growing, James McClean finally came on, but the fans were unhappy to see striker Graham withdrawn – especially as Johnson had created so little.
Approaching the last 10 minutes, Sunderland earned two corners in quick succession but threatened from neither and when, seven minutes from time, striker Connor Wickham replaced Johnson, the England winger being booed off the pitch told its own story of how anguished the home support was.
All the Wearsiders could muster was a Gardner cross ushered to Sessegnon, which the African dragged wide of the far post in the 86th minute, while Holt twice threatened to embarrass uncertain substitute Titus Bramble and might even have scored in the 71st minute after losing his marker, only to be denied by a brave Mignolet dive.
At the final whistle, there were boos all around the ground and no Sunderland player could have blamed the paying punters for that.
Leaders Manchester United are next up, the best side in the division and one which will be completely motivated by their memories of their heartbreaking last day of last season at the Stadium of Light.
A long, hard road lies ahead for O’Neill and his men.
If they cannot get the results they desire from these next four games, which also include Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton, they at least need to produce the performances which will give their supporters an ounce of hope.