EVEN after witnessing Jon Stead help to inflict the feeblest of FA Cup eliminations, the 4,200 travelling Sunderland fans still saluted the striker as he came off with a minute to go.
Stead is a contender for one of the worst Sunderland signings of the past decade (and there have been plenty) but he was magnificent yesterday; unrecognisable from the player who netted just twice in 34 appearances in red and white.
The 31-year-old held the ball up immaculately on a roulette wheel surface, stretched Sunderland down the channels, out-muscled John O’Shea and Wes Brown, and got the goal which he deserved.
Yet he was still awarded a standing ovation from the away stand.
It was a superb gesture, and one awarded to ex-Sunderland youngster Billy Knott too after the midfielder was similarly influential.
However, it was the sights and sounds in the away end a couple of minutes earlier which should be more of a worry for Gus Poyet, as the game petered out to a alarmingly comfortable conclusion for Bradford City.
“It’s always our fault, it’s always our fault, Gustavo Poyet, it’s always our fault,” chanted a hefty number of disenchanted supporters in reference to the head coach’s post-match comments after defeat to QPR.
These are precarious times for Poyet in the opinion polls.
For all Poyet believes his remarks last week were misinterpreted (not that a post-match pop at the press has helped him) it’s why it was neither the time or place to broach the topic on the crowd for a second or third time last Tuesday night.
Perceptions are everything and Poyet has created a major problem for himself.
The chants weren’t universal and a small bout of fisticuffs followed among a minority, who presumably didn’t agree with the sentiment.
But it summed up the fractured mood which has developed on the terraces in less than a week, and how far Sunderland have been knocked off course after a couple of defeats.
That’s not a healthy situation. Poyet desperately needs to inject some calm back into proceedings with victory over West Brom.
For all social media and the football phone-ins unsurprisingly had minimal patience for him last night, Sunderland don’t want to jump back on the managerial merry-go-round, even if the Uruguayan has exacerbated a lot of the problems himself.
But Poyet will need to display a thicker skin this week than he has shown up to now.
In fairness, Poyet’s players also have to take a hefty share of the blame for Sunderland’s humiliation at Valley Parade.
Some fans have questioned team selection and tactics, but neither adequately explained why Sunderland were second best in every department.
Bradford showed more desire, more intelligence and more physicality, and in the end, deservedly ran out as comprehensive winners.
It helped the Bantams that they got off to a dream start, as Sunderland failed to deal with a softly awarded set piece – surely one of the last things Poyet will have told his charges before they left the dressing room.
Sunderland fatally allowed the ball to bounce in the six-yard box and it bobbled through to Billy Clarke, whose shot took a wicked deflection off John O’Shea and beat Vito Mannone at his near post.
But after that, Bradford were simply the better team in a classic old-fashioned cup tie. Understandably, Valley Parade’s biggest crowd since the 1960s loved it.
Bradford won the flick-ons, triumphed in the 50-50s and showed a far better grasp of the pitch by playing with their heads.
Sunderland’s Premier League players looked like they had never, ever played on such a surface, or in such surroundings.
The excellent Knott and central midfield partner Gary Liddle got their heads up and floated passes down the channels for Stead, James Hanson and Clarke to run onto.
Clarke, in particular, was a constant menace in the first half as he was awarded acres of space in front of the Sunderland back four after the defensive midfield role was sacrificed in an orthodox 4-4-2 from Poyet.
Sunderland’s defence was stretched ragged as a result and persistently placed on the back foot, as the crosses came in.
Quite simply, Sunderland were bullied. Arguably the only surprise was that it took so long for Bradford to grab a second.
However, Sunderland did have some mitigation after again falling foul of bungling referee Kevin Friend, who utterly lost control in the first half, to the extent where he didn’t seem to know what did or didn’t constitute a foul.
First, Friend only awarded a free-kick from a cynical, ugly aerial assault from Bradford centre-half Rory McArdle on Danny Graham, which left both players dripping with blood.
There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned physical statement, but McArdle’s ‘challenge’ was nasty, and rightly had the Sunderland bench raging, with Graham fortunate to escape serious injury.
And then there was the penalty that wasn’t. Familiar story, of course, with Mr Friend.
Steven Fletcher was wrongly flagged onside and needlessly dallied after Seb Larsson’s shot deflected fortuitously into his path, in acres of space eight yards out.
But McArdle blatantly went straight through the back of him.
As was the case when Fletcher was pole-axed by Fraser Forster at Southampton and the couple of handballs on Boxing Day against Hull, Friend waved play on.
A penalty – and what surely would have been a red card for McArdle – would have been a game-changer.
But it was no excuse for Sunderland’s subsequent lame attempts to get back into proceedings.
There was a deflected Patrick van Aanholt shot which bounced awkwardly in front of Ben Williams that the Bradford keeper just managed to paw away, and there was an Adam Johnson chip, plus a Connor Wickham header in the second half.
But that was the sum total of Sunderland’s pathetic attacking efforts.
Sunderland showed marginally more intent in the first five minutes following the re-start, but it wasn’t to last and the visitors’ ball retention fell apart.
Bradford comfortably coped with those slim pickings and deservedly doubled their advantage when Adam Johnson - one of the few visiting players to somewhat adapt to the terrain – cleared straight to Hanson on the edge of the area.
Hanson headed into the path of Stead, whose shot squirmed uncomfortably under Mannone for that typical goal against former employers.
That strike will make this a horribly uncomfortable week for Poyet and his players, where we will really see what they are made of.
With a quarter of the season still to go, Saturday’s visit of West Brom is not make-or-break in terms of relegation.
But both Sunderland – and particularly Poyet – need to get supporters back onside with three points.
Inevitably, it’s in the nature of the game that fans have short memories after a win, yet yesterday was an afternoon which will remain vivid... and for a long time to come.
BRADFORD: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Meredith, Liddle, Morais, Knott (Halliday 78), Clarke (Yeates 86), Hanson, Stead (Zoko 89). Subs not used: Urwin, Sheehan, MacKenzie, Routis. Booked: Clarke (31)
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Jones (Vergini 86), Brown, O’Shea, van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Johnson, Larsson, Alvarez (Honeyman 86), Fletcher, Graham (Wickham 46). Subs not used: Pantilimon, Gomez, Coates, Agnew. Booked: Fletcher (10), Larsson (36), Jones (67)
Referee: Kevin Friend