Relegation clouds hover over Sunderland again

Posted by Colin Randall

Wes Brown brings down Shane Long, resulting in an early bath for the Sunderland defender.GettyImagesWes Brown brings down Shane Long, resulting in an early bath for the Sunderland defender.

The day began well and in good company with a visit to the railway museum in my hometown -- Shildon, County Durham -- and a chance to gawp at Mallard, a sleek, regal relic of the steam age. It ended in more good company in the heart of Swaledale, one of England's prettiest locations.

In between there was this: Sunderland 0-2 Hull City.

Any realistic prospect of enjoying an afternoon that ended with Sunderland's latest failure to take three points, or even one, from a must-win game lasted three minutes. Wes Brown can barely have been warm before he was dismissed for a professional foul, leaving Gus Poyet's impressive recent revival of Sunderland fortunes heading for a nasty collision with the buffers.

- Bruce delighted by new strikers

Consider Brown's dilemma. A shockingly sloppy backward pass from Phil Bardsley put Hull's lively new recruit Shane Long through on goal.

At such an early stage of the game, do you accept that he may well go and score unless Vito Mannone can pull off one of his outstanding saves? Is the risk of going one down really more ominous than being one man short for almost the entire game?

The consensus around me at the Stadium of Light, and in later discussions, was that no challenge would have been better than the one he made, narrowly avoiding a penalty but instantly ending his involvement.

Hull failed to score from the resulting free kick on the edge of the penalty area but took only a dozen more minutes to convert overwhelming possession into a lead. Mannone made a spectacular save on the line from Jake Livermore, but the corner kick led to a spot of bobbing about in the goalmouth before Long headed home.

With Fabio Borini withdrawn to enable Poyet to make his post-red card adjustments, the best Sunderland could manage in the first half was a stunning Adam Johnson volley. Roy Hodgson, the watching England manager, will have been impressed by his technique, but the shot flew straight at Steve Harper in the Hull goal and Johnson had few other chances to improve his case for making England's World Cup squad.

A rare period of bright Sunderland play in the second half was rudely interrupted by a heavily deflected cross-shot that fell, cruelly for Sunderland, onto Nikica Jelavic's head. The game was then beyond the reach of a home side unable to muster a serious threat to the Hull goal.

Three key Hull acquisitions -- new boys Long and Jelavic, plus Livermore on loan from Spurs -- had parts to play in this disturbingly easy victory. But it was also a result that handed a happy return to Sunderland for four rejects: manager Steve Bruce and three of his starting lineup, David Meyler, Ahmed Elmohamady and Paul McShane. Bruce got his tactics right, and the three former Sunderland men all produced "told you so" performances.

With Borini gone, Elmohamady combined well with Liam Rosenior to torment the exposed Marcos Alonso on the right. McShane was comfortable in defence, and Meyler, popular but unlucky with injuries at Sunderland, was a strength in midfield with the simplicity and composure Sunderland supporters have come to expect from Ki Sung-Yueng but certainly did not get on Saturday.

Alone up front, Jozy Altidore had another of his ineffectual games, a few deft touches offset by his current inability to look remotely capable of scoring. But he can fairly argue that service to him was atrocious, hopeful hoofed balls to areas without a colleague in sight to help out.

When Sunderland played at Hull in November, Lee Cattermole and Andre Dossena were both shown straight reds before half-time. That Sunderland produced a heartening second-half rally, preventing a rout and nearly snatching a point, was due in no small measure to a storming return from long-term injury of Wes Brown, sent on for the second half.

Since that 1-0 defeat, Brown has been utterly crucial to Sunderland's run of better results, as I have repeatedly pointed out. I highlighted Bardsley's sound contributions a few days ago.

Is my praise becoming a curse? I had also praised Cattermole's improved disciplinary record just before that dismissal at Hull. And Brown has now seen red three times this season, though one was later rescinded.

After the ecstasy of the previous weekend, with that famous 3-0 thrashing of Newcastle United, this defeat plonks Sunderland right back on the edge of the relegation zone. Deeply unpromising visits to Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool loom before there will be another opportunity to redeem themselves at home.

"We can't look back too much on this game because it's not a normal game when you play 85 minutes with 10 men," Poyet said, clutching at straws, in his postmatch email to supporters.

The reality for most of the nearly 43,000 who turned out for this profoundly disappointing setback is that by the time their team faces Man City again, for the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley on March 2, they will once again be rooted in the bottom three.

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