SUNDERLAND fans went to Hull and back at the weekend.
They will have to travel a lot longer and a lot further to witness as bad a first half for their team again, as they saw on Saturday – a day they needed their side to win at best, draw at worst, to keep the derby feelgood factor going.
There was never any chance of the Sunderland bounceback continuing, though, in the wake of a calamitous first half which saw them concede an own goal, lose keeper Keiren Westwood to injury and have Lee Cattermole and Andrea Dossena both sent off in the five minutes added on at the end of the 45.
The last time Sunderland had two players dismissed in a game was against Portsmouth in February, 2010, when, yes, Lee Cattermole again, and then David Meyler – ironically the victim for Hull at the weekend rather than the perpetrator – were red-carded.
But, on that occasion, the Teessider wasn’t sent off at Fratton Park until the 53rd minute and Meyler the 87th.
No, to find a situation as soul-destroying as the one encountered at the weekend, fans would have to stretch their minds back to February, 2003, when, between them, Stephen Wright and Michael Proctor staggeringly scored three own goals in 10 mad first-half minutes against Charlton.
There was no coming back then, and many fans assumed there was no coming back at the weekend, which was why a significant number headed home from the KC Stadium at half-time.
In doing so, they missed nine-man Sunderland’s stoic and admirable second-half resistance – the Wearsiders preventing the hosts scoring again – an achievement Gus Poyet highlighted as something his team should build on.
As straws to clutch on to, it was about as good as the new head coach could have mustered in the circumstances.
But the abiding memory of the game was the first half, not the second, and Sunderland’s failure to capitalise on a limited Hull team which looked as though it might have been there for the taking.
Sunderland would rarely have had a better chance to beat Hull – the Tigers exhausted by two epic clashes against Spurs in cup and league in the previous week and depleted by injury.
The sense of walking wounded was underlined when striker Sone Aluko broke down in the warm-up.
He was replaced by Meyler, which meant former Black Cats boss Steve Bruce fielded all three of his ex-Sunderland players, with right-winger Ahmed Elmohamady and centre-half Paul McShane included in a 4-5-1 line-up.
Gus Poyet made only one change to the side which beat Newcastle, bringing in match-winner Fabio Borini in place of Adam Johnson in a positive 4-3-3 formation.
And the early signs were promising for Sunderland – former Tiger Jozy Altidore producing a wayward effort in the first minute – as the visitors went on to marginally dominate a lacklustre opening 15 minutes.
Sadly for Altidore, that early miss turned out to be the high point of his game as both he and Borini laboured to make inroads and regularly conceded possession.
It was not without relevance to Sunderland’s plight this season that they were the only two of 14 summer signings to start Saturday’s game and both were substituted at the break.
Sunderland had a scare in the 16th minute when Curtis Davies almost glanced an inswinging Tom Huddlestone free-kick from the left in at the far post.
But Sunderland had looked pretty comfortable defensively before they unexpectedly conceded in the 25th minute.
Like so many of Sunderland’s goals this season, it could have been easily avoided – in this case if John O’Shea had been more aware, or Andrea Dossena or Westwood had given him a shout.
If that had happened, the Irishman would have let a long ball sail harmlessly into touch rather than head it out for a Hull throw.
From the throw-in, Liam Rosenior whipped in a ball from the right which Carlos Cuellar nodded across Westwood as he tried to hold off the challenge of Yannick Sagbo.
Sunderland responded, earning a couple of corners, but nothing really threatening.
And they suffered a further setback when Westwood suffered a sickening collision with McShane – the keeper diving in bravely at a free-kick – and he was replaced by Vito Mannone five minutes before the break.
At that stage, things were looking a bit depressing for an error-prone, toothless Sunderland, but they got a whole lot worse when Cattermole – the Black Cats’ driving force, but also as guilty as his team-mates of giving the ball away – scythed down Elmohamady in the centre of the park.
Although contact was minimal, the intent was obvious from the fired-up Sunderland midfielder who had been seething with frustration in the minutes leading up to the brainless challenge.
When he made his move, he was out of control both physically and mentally.
If Sunderland’s hopes of winning the game had not evaporated with Cattermole’s lunge, they did with Dossena’s cowardly stamp down the shin of Meyler three minutes later – a cynical, reprehensible and inexcusable foul – which brought the curtain down on a disastrous half.
When play resumed, Poyet removed the anonymous Borini and Altidore and brought on Johnson and Wes Brown – the ex-Manchester United man playing his first first-team game since January 2012 – as the team switched to 3-4-1.
The floodgates would have been expected to open, but they did not as Sunderland’s players stayed strong while Hull underlined how limited they were in attack, something which only emphasised what an opportunity the visitors had missed out on.
The Tigers enjoyed plenty of possession but did not muster a shot of real note until just before the hour, when Mannone dived full length to his left to pull down Jake Livermore’s long-range outswinging shot.
With Hull failing to get the vital second, Sunderland were offered the merest glimpses of a redemptive equaliser – Johnson advancing upfield but lashing his shot off target, Seb Larsson having an opportunity from a free-kick on the right of goal but dragging his effort wide.
And when the Swede drove a low shot off target a few minutes later, nine-man Sunderland had had more shots on goal in the second half than the full-strength side had managed in the first.
Sunderland’s best chance, though, did not come until the 78th minute when a long ball forward reached Johnson ahead of the home defence.
The winger controlled it, but that was just enough of a moment for keeper Steve Harper to surge out, spread himself well and block away the powerful shot which followed.
The fretting Bruce summed the half up perfectly afterwards when he observed: “Sunderland did it very well – they put three at the back, four in the middle and invited us to cross the ball.
“We needed a second goal to make it safe.
“Fair play to them, they almost got themselves out of a hole, but it wasn’t to be for them.
“A few times in the game I worried it might go against us in the closing stages, but, thankfully, it wasn’t one of those horrible days.”
Hull counter-attacked from Johnson’s chance, with Livermore driving a shot against Mannone’s right-hand post and, in the final minutes, Mannone made a tremendous save from a deflected Huddlestone shot.
But Sunderland’s sense of frustration was only heightened a couple of minutes from time when Robbie Brady left the ground to slide through Johnson – the challenge just as bad as Cattermole’s – but the Hull man escaped with a yellow card.
Poyet urged his players forward in time added on, Mannone included, looking to poach an equaliser which always looked beyond a side which has now scored just two goals in its last six away games.
But the upshot at the final whistle was a defeat which means – look away now everybody – the Wearsiders have won just three of their last 25 Premier League games.
What should not be overlooked is that Sunderland’s players deserve credit for the way they performed in the second half – it would have been easy to give it up.
It would have been an even greater achievement if they could have got a Get Out of Jail Free card and managed to notch an equaliser in that second 45 minutes.
But any team which fails to communicate defensively, fails to threaten convincingly and has two players sent off before the break for ridiculous lapses in judgement and discipline, does not really deserve anything from a game at any level, never mind this one.