FORMER Black Cats came bearing gifts at the weekend.
Anton Ferdinand was part of a QPR defence which never fully convinced.
Nedum Onuoha’s mistake gave Sunderland their important second goal.
But it was Djibril Cisse, the man Sunderland might have feared most before the game, who was most generous of all, getting himself sent off for a reckless two-footed lunge on Fraizer Campbell which left referee Mike Jones no option but to reach for a straight red card.
Rangers boss Mark Hughes argued afterwards that the 54th-minute dismissal was not necessarily pivotal, suggesting his players had been making so much of a hash of things before the sending off that they would not have won anyway.
But it certainly helped Sunderland that their opponents had to play 40 minutes with only 10 men.
And it meant that having taken a first-half lead, Sunderland were far less likely to slip up in the closing stages.
For this game was undoubtedly a potential banana skin for Sunderland.
Coming just three days before the FA Cup quarter-final replay against Everton which has so grabbed the attention of the Wearside public, it would have been so easy for all concerned to take their eyes, literally and metaphorically, off the ball.
Martin O’Neill looked to guard against that by shaking up the side, making three changes to the side so lacklustre against Blackburn Rovers in midweek.
Exhausted Seb Larsson, unwell Phil Bardsley and fatigued Fraizer Campbell were taken out of the firing line and Jack Colback, John O’Shea and Stephane Sessegon – returning from his three-match suspension – all came back into the side.
QPR made a couple of changes to the side which produced a stunning last-minute midweek win over Liverpool – chief of which was the start for 90th-minute goalscorer Jamie Mackie.
Mackie replaced former Magpie Joey Barton – the captain booed by his own fans in the Liverpool game – who had to be content with a place on the bench and a spot of goading Sunderland fans.
While Barton was demonstrating his enduring charm, his replacement was producing an eye-catching performance. But not enough of his team-mates followed his example..
QPR – led out by skipper-for-the-day Anton Ferdinand; all three former players getting warm receptions – started tentatively.
Sunderland started cautiously, too.
But O’Neill wouldn’t have minded that, as his players patiently worked on the passing game that had completely eluded them at Ewood Park.
Confidence came with possession, but it wasn’t until the ninth minute that the hosts mounted their first real attack, winning a couple of corners – the first coming straight at Adel Taarabt who did well to block legitimately at the near post; the second headed away at the far post by Luke Young with Sunderland pressing dangerously.
From then on, it was largely one-way traffic as Sunderland took control.
Jack Colback was influential in that dominance and had a couple of chances to cap a fine display with a goal, but he couldn’t quite get a connection from Sessegnon’s fine left-wing cross from the first one and then controlled well with his right foot before driving a left-foot volley into the side netting with his second.
Rangers’ first effort on goal did not come until the quarter-hour when Young’s cross was headed over by Mackie.
Sessegnon trickled a shot in the 20th minute before O’Shea was forced out with his troublesome hamstring, to be replaced by Campbell, and Sunderland had cause to be grateful when Taarabt hit the wall just after the half-hour when Michael Turner brought down Mackie on the very edge of the 18-yard box.
But despite those setbacks – and a handbags moment in the box between Bobby Zamora and Sotirios Kyrgiakos that referee Jones dealt wisely with – the momentum was inexorably with Sunderland.
The game badly needed a goal and it arrived in the 40th minute from an incisive move – Wayne Bridge finding James McClean down the left and the winger’s lofted cross reached Nicklas Bendtner directly in front of goal, 10 yards out.
Rangers’ defenders might have averted the danger had they jumped with the Danish striker, but they were flat-footed and Bendtner glanced his header down and into the bottom left-hand corner of Paddy Kenny’s net for his sixth goal of the season.
Rangers tried to get straight back into it – Taye Taiwo, most at fault for the Bendtner goal, looking to make amends with a decent cross from the left, but Cisse headed against Krygiakos and out for a corner as Sunderland saw the match through to the break.
QPR needed to lift their game in the second half, but Sunderland started well and Craig Gardner had already driven a 20-yard free-kick, on the right of goal, against Paddy Kenny’s crossbar before Cisse’s moment of madness in the 54th minute.
The Frenchman has been a victim of two horrific leg breaks himself, so what possessed him to drive into Campbell, both feet up, was hard to fathom.
What was clear, though, was that a largely insipid Rangers – hardly threatening with all 11 men on the pitch – were going to struggle to make inroads with only 10 for the majority of the second half.
Sunderland increased their stranglehold, Sessegnon firing over after bearing down on goal.
Hughes sought to stem the flow, bringing on livewire Shaun Wright-Phillips for Taarabt on the hour, but it made little difference.
McClean almost forced Sunderland’s second from a Gardner cross which came through a ruck of bodies in the box in the 64th minute, but Young did well, flinging himself in front of the shot at point-blank range.
The winger, who signed an improved three-year contract on Friday, was not to be denied showing exactly why he merited a lucrative new deal, capitalising on a mistake by Onuoha in the 70th minute.
The centre-half got under the ball as he attempted to head a a clearance and the young Irishman nipped in to take possession and zero in on goal.
Young once again blocked the winger’s shot, forcing McClean away to the left of goal, but the follow-up effort took a slight deflection off the desperately backtracking Onuoha to flash past the wrong-footed Kenny into the far corner.
It was the Irishman’s fifth goal of the season and really put Sunderland in the driving seat, but they put the issue beyond doubt in the 75th minute with the best-worked goal of the afternoon.
McClean was involved again, a neat, controlled flick over the top playing in David Vaughan down towards the left corner flag and the midfielder’s driven ball across the area was side-footed home by Sessegnon, six yards out, at the far post.
There was a slight sting in tale from QPR – Taiwo curled home a pearler of a free-kick in the 79th minute after Kyrgiakos had fouled Zamora.
Simon Mignolet, who had otherwise been a spectator in the Sunderland goal, was unable to get a glove on a left-foot shot which flew into the top left corner of his goal.
But Sunderland saw no need to sit on their lead – McClean putting in a first-time cross in the closing stages which Bendtner headed on to the roof of the net.
And QPR, short on numbers, were in no position to mount any realistic charge for parity.
The win takes Sunderland to the 40-point total which effectively completes O’Neill’s brief upon taking over the listing ship back in December – secure Premier League football for another season.
But now, another mission has crept up on the radar – not about surviving but about thriving – about taking Sunderland further in the FA Cup than they dared dream when they entered the competition in January.
Tomorrow’s quarter-final replay against Everton is a mouth-watering prospect.
And while the QPR game was something of a mundane affair for long spells, tomorrow’s game will be compelling from start to finish, simply because of what sort of fixture it is and what lies at stake beyond.
It has been quite a journey in such a short space of time, even by the dramatic standards of the Black Cats’ manager’s long career.
Sunderland are safe, they are eighth, and by tomorrow night they could be in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and Wembley-bound.
What a turnaround O’Neill has masterminded.