In 2006, Kevin Ball, caretaker manager of Sunderland after Mick McCarthy's sacking, led his team to a fighting 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Sunderland went down all the same, not because of any failings on the part of Ball, who had taken charge of a doomed side, but because this was a team that had not even won a home game all season.
• Report: Sunderland 1-2 Man United
Ball -- again in temporary charge, this time after Paolo Di Canio's dismissal -- saw a first half against the wobbling might of Manchester United end with another struggling team at good value for a 1-0 lead. The mood of Sunderland supporters varied from elated disbelief to elated apprehension.
And come the 62nd minute, the apprehensive were shown to have had reason on their side. In the space of a dozen or so minutes, Adnan Januzaj, a gifted 18-year-old born in Belgium of Kosovar parents, had been booked for simulation, otherwise known as cheating, only to triumph over any fleeting shame to score twice on his debut, the first a simple conversion of Patrice Evra's cross, the second the neatest of volleys.
Ball had, for the second successive home game against title or at least top-four contenders, managed to enthuse his men for the toughest of challenges and had to make do with no more than a plucky losing performance. Two beyond-belief wins, or even four points, against Liverpool and United might have given him a decent chance of being entrusted with the task of avoiding relegation at least until the end of the season. Now, with a weekend free of Premier League football looming thanks to the internationals, I suspect he will be handing over control of the side before the battle recommences, at Swansea on Oct. 19.
With seven games played, one point gained and the Championship staring Sunderland ever more menacingly in the face, his chances of getting the job full time must have vanished. Even Ellis Short's matchday programme notes betrayed little sign of encouragement. Recognising the desire among supporters for stability -- some of us would welcome just a hint of it -- he wrote: "Unfortunately sometimes the quest for stability can be interrupted by the absolute necessity of staying in the league. This is because the long-term aim becomes irrelevant if we aren’t at the top level."
Short urged followers of "this massive club" to ignore media speculation, most of which was "completely wrong," though he must be far too smart to be surprised that the media, along with those followers, should be debating the merits or otherwise of each name that could possibly translate into job applicant.
That, Mr. Short, is what football is about. Fans care; the media feed their appetite.
Tony Pulis? Take your pick between "he comes, I go" and "did a great if ugly job keeping Stoke up." Gus Poyet? Opinions broadly range from “another loose cannon, a la PDC" to "brightest young manager currently available." And maybe, if we take the owner's word at face value, one or both have not even been approached.
What we can be entirely sure of is that while Saturday evening's defeat came as no surprise to anyone, be they Sunderland or United fans or neutrals, it casts the team seven points adrift, on goal difference, of a place outside the bottom three. No one should dismiss the cruelty of the fixtures list; it simply defies natural justice to have a home programme that includes all the likeliest top six clubs in the first eight home games at the Stadium of Light.
The real issue is that by the time the supposedly easier games come along, confidence will be as low as the most probable league position: rock bottom. It would then, indeed, be a great escape par excellence for whoever happened to be in charge.
As for the United game, I was heartened by the way Sunderland started. Emanuele Giaccherini was head and shoulders above every other player on the field, so much so that I feared United might sidestep the wait for the January transfer window and abduct him. Craig Gardner took his goal as clinically as he takes penalties.
I have seen some depressingly over-critical reactions from Sunderland supporters. "That second half was embarrassing"; "simply not good enough against terrible Utd side." I understand the frustration. I recognise Sunderland's limitations. But to damn a team that masters the champions as well as Kevin Ball's men did for 45 minutes seems to me to deserve better than scathing contempt.
Keiren Westwood was beaten by a couple of shots that went wide but generally commanded the 6-yard box more confidently than he had given us hope to expect. The defence generally coped well and Sunderland constantly looked bright going forward. Adam Johnson's excellent run ought to have produced a second goal for Giaccherini, who blazed over; the Italian's fabulous header would have beaten most keepers but found David de Gea at his best.
Yes, this level of threat and application could be said to have disintegrated in the first 20 minutes of the second half. But what would it mean for the English game if the team that has been by far its best proponent in recent times could not overcome a halftime deficit to win a game at the home of the bottom club? And why cannot Kevin Ball take credit from a decent shot at narrowly avoiding defeat, albeit with a distinctly second-best second-half display?
It comes back, in the end, to the excess of expectation with which Sunderland supporters approach their side's fortunes. More often than not, I share the unrealistic belief that my club remains any kind of force.
I now believe the season will end with relegation. But I will not look back on the defeat by Manchester United as a shameful part of the reason for that failure.