STEVE Bruce was stunned when his captain approached him on the opening day of pre-season training and asked to leave the Stadium of Light.
While Lorik Cana’s swift departure from Wearside came as a major surprise, at least the Albanian was leaving for a club with the prospect of Champions League football.
Darren Bent can have no such excuse.
Even worse, there’s no ready-made replacement.
The initial reaction to Bent’s transfer request among supporters was one of puzzlement.
What rational reason could the England striker have for swapping a club with high hopes of European qualification for one in disarray lying on the brink of the Premier League drop zone?
The motive now appears to be one of the almighty dollar.
But if that’s the only factor in Bent’s decision, it doesn’t say much for his ambition.
It says even less if Bent was prepared to swap the Premier League for the money on offer in Turkey last summer.
Villa remain engulfed in a very real relegation battle and there is no guarantee that Bent won’t be back in the Championship next season if the move goes ahead.
Yes, owner Randy Lerner has given manager Gerard Houllier an almighty vote of confidence by agreeing to break the club’s transfer record to land Bent.
But it was clear from Sunderland’s victory at Villa Park two weeks ago that Houllier has splintered both terrace and dressing room opinion since succeeding Martin O’Neill.
Meanwhile, upwardly mobile Sunderland remain well-placed to secure a Europa League position despite the dire displays from their last two games.
Bent, like the rest of his team-mates, endured a shocker against both Notts County and Newcastle United.
But that has been the case for the 26-year-old for the last two months, ever since he returned from the hamstring injury first sustained on England duty.
There has been something missing from Bent’s game since November – his touch and control have not been there while the confidence in front of goal has drained out of him.
In retrospect, that was the first clue at something not being right.
Take that early chance against Newcastle on Sunday after he got the better of Fabricio Coloccini. Last January, the ball would have been spinning in the back of the Magpies’ net rather than bouncing off Steve Harper’s outstretched leg.
In that respect, Bent’s departure wouldn’t be a fatal blow to Sunderland’s hopes of Europe.
They’ve had to carry him somewhat recently and there won’t be an immediate slump in fortunes for Bruce’s men.
But that is taking far too much of a short-term view.
Every striker experiences lean patches in front of goal and Bent is no exception. You just have to look at his stunning scoring record in the Premier League to prove that.
This is still the player who single-handedly kept Sunderland out of danger last season.
No, Bent doesn’t have the flair or vision of a Wayne Rooney, but he is a natural predator who makes up for the deficiencies in his game with work-rate and the ability to work the channels.
One potential hurdle to Bent rediscovering his form would have been his stuttering partnership with Asamoah Gyan with neither possessing the knack of playing with their back to goal.
The Ghanaian is a maverick character and the pair have too often got in each other’s way over the last two months – something which hasn’t happened when Gyan has been up front with Danny Welbeck.
The £23million outlay on the duo has not borne the instant fruit Bruce would have hoped, but things would surely have improved once Gyan completed the tricky maiden campaign in English football.
Bruce was rock solid in his faith in the strikers despite their lean streak and will see Bent’s imminent departure as a severe blow to Sunderland’s chances.
It leaves Sunderland with just a solitary fit forward for Saturday’s trip to Blackpool and Bruce will now spend the remaining 13 days of the transfer window frantically looking at those available.
Wigan’s Hugo Rodallega, who Bruce signed for the Latics, may be one option although whoever he pursues is not going to come cheap with rivals well aware of Sunderland’s desperate need to boost their forward line.
Even if Welbeck is back in the fold for the weekend, and it would be a major surprise if he was, the Black Cats remain light on numbers up front.
A temporary option until the end of the season is probably the likeliest way forward – forcing Bruce to again scour the foreign market for a loanee.
You need to pay exorbitant fees, as Villa are prepared to do, to land anyone of proven quality in the January window and loan deals offer better value until the more sensible purchasing in the summer.
But if Sunderland are serious about Europe, then does a loan player really fill the void left by Bent?
Bruce will also feel personally slighted by Bent’s decision after working hard to persuade the striker out of a big money move to Fenerbahce during the summer.
The Sunderland boss felt he had quelled Bent’s itchy feet and finally assembled a squad who shared the same vision. It appears for one of them that wasn’t the case.
Bent obviously got wind of Villa’s big money interest last week and his head was subsequently turned.
That it was turned so easily will mightily disappoint Sunderland fans who believed Bent had formed a love affair with the club similar to previous goal heroes Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn.
Bent spoke regularly of being reborn at Sunderland and his love for the area.
A regular on Twitter, Bent would interact with Black Cats fans although his enthusiasm for new media may have eventually hastened his decision to leave.
Bent hit out at internet messageboard criticism of his form nine days ago and it wasn’t the first unpleasant episode in the North East for the former Spurs striker.
His mother was racially abused four months into his tenure at the Stadium of Light while his car was attacked by Newcastle fans in the city’s Bigg Market.
But none of these reasons seem adequate to justify swapping the top six for a relegation battle.
Money, as so often in football, has talked and the half-hearted excuses at Bent not feeling appreciated enough at the Stadium of Light won’t wash.
At least Bent had the decency to wait until after the derby – although only just – to throw the club into turmoil.
That’s small mercy though to a decision which justifiably leaves the faith of Sunderland fans in their modern heroes severely tested.