SIMON Mignolet has been one of the few Sunderland players to be showered with plaudits this season.
The Belgian has shone as the one ever-reliant in a toiling side.
Week-after-week, Mignolet has been solid, dependable and crucially error-free, gradually establishing his reputation as one of the top flight’s most promising young goalkeepers.
Not since Ryan Taylor’s free-kick caught him out of position in August 2011’s Wear-Tyne derby, has Mignolet made a notable mistake.
That was until just before 1.30pm yesterday.
It was a howler of howlers from Mignolet as he spilled Chris Brunt’s over-hit through-ball and gifted Shane Long his fifth Premier League goal of the campaign.
Mignolet shook his head in disbelief in the minutes that followed, despite the crowd rallying behind the stricken stopper.
For although Mignolet was beaten on a further two occasions in the second half, it was that horrifying clanger on the stroke of half-time which was to prove decisive in inflicting a third successive Stadium of Light defeat on Sunderland.
It’s perhaps if’s, but’s and maybe’s, but had Sunderland gone into the interval with a solitary goal to claw back, they would have fancied their chances.
In the opening half-hour, they had demonstrated the boost in confidence received from the victory at Craven Cottage.
Stephane Sessegnon clearly benefited from the euphoria of his wonderful strike against Fulham, with the Benin international a shining light in Sunderland’s attack.
Baggies stopper Boaz Myhill was utterly unorthodox, but just about managed to deny Sessegnon - both with a slick volley and then a glancing header.
Had Sunderland got their noses in front during that period, West Brom could have had few complaints after the Black Cats finally looked a goal threat on their own patch.
Even when Zoltan Gera capitalised on Adam Johnson’s loose touch to break the deadlock, Sunderland still looked like they could get something out of the game.
But Mignolet’s error was pivotal.
Without the driving influence of the injured Lee Cattermole, Sunderland were not the same attacking force after the break.
They laboured to build up the same impetus as West Brom put men behind the ball and hit Martin O’Neill’s side on the counter-attack.
The Baggies looked by far the more dangerous side and had options on the break, as James Morrison, Chris Brunt, Shane Long and Zoltan Gera picked pockets of space.
Inevitably, Sunderland had to leave gaps, as they chased the goal which would get them back in the game.
Although they got it, courtesy of Craig Gardner’s free-kick, the hopes of a comeback looked over when Liam Ridgewell theatrically tumbled over Johnson’s needless challenge.
Sessegnon’s goal provided some solace, but Sunderland’s chances of a point had vanished by the time Marc-Antoine Fortune confirmed defeat.
A third successive home defeat, coupled with four goals conceded, will turn the Wearside alarm bells back on, even though Sunderland were beaten by a side brimming with confidence in the Champions League places and created far more chances than in previous Stadium of Light outings.
Booing again rifled through the crisp Autumnal air at the final whistle.
While yesterday shouldn’t prompt such hasty knee-jerk reactions, Sunderland do need to taste victory against QPR on Tuesday and ensure the improvement in their performances doesn’t dissolve away through morale-sapping defeats.
Although a greater attacking threat was encouraging, if Sunderland are victims to a Harry Redknapp-bounce effect, they will be very much back in the doldrums.
* Don’t miss your best read of the week – the Football Echo – out today