SO now we know what it is: It’s a relegation battle after all.
Yet another false dawn for Sunderland fans. Yet another kick in the teeth.
And oh by the way would you mind buying a season ticket for next season and avoid watching your latest disappointment in the pub?
Chairman Niall Quinn’s bid to drive Sunderland fans out of the beer bars in their droves might yet succeed but not in the way he hopes.
Twice Sunderland led the game on Saturday, twice they conceded horribly sloppy goals before finally succumbing to defeat far too easily.
And not even a late surge could disguise a woeful lack of confidence, cutting edge or cohesion at the back.
Steve Bruce was wise, way back in Sunderland’s winter of content to suggest waiting for the crocuses and daffodils to arrive before predicting European qualification. The crocuses are barely back in the ground again and those hopes are six foot under. Not only that, but the ghosts of relegation past are beginning to haunt supporters as Sunderland’s failure turns into freefall.
But Sunderland put an uninspiring start behind them to take an 11th minute lead when Asamoah Gyan’s cross from the left was deflected high into the air and Nicky Shorey headed past his own goalkeeper from 10 yards out as he looked to hold off Elmohamady’s challenge.
Albion stayed in the game.
They matched Sunderland’s workrate, they kept their sense of belief and just before half-hour they were level - though they had to be grateful to some pretty ropey Sunderland defending.
Having only half-cleared their lines once already in the 29th minute, Sunderland allowed the ball to come back too easily from the left. It looped high into the air from a slight deflection and Jonas Olsson rose unmarked on the penalty spot to head goalwards.
Sunderland’s defenders gathered around the dropping ball in the six-yard box but Peter Odemwingie was as sharp as a razor and nimbly slid past Ferdinand to turn the ball home as it hit the turf.
The Wearsiders have not been great from set-pieces this season but Phil Bardsley’s effort on the half-hour was top class – smashing an unstoppable right-foot shot into the top right-hand corner of Scott Carson’s goal.
Sunderland started the second-half brightly enough but the word is out in footballing circles that they can’t buy a point at the moment, that they can’t hold on to a lead and Albion had obviously absorbed that fact.
The kept probing away, asking questions of a Sunderland team who were allowing them to see far too much of the ball and in the 54th minute the Wearsiders paid the price when they found themselves back on level terms through another sloppily conceded goal.
Albion simply passed the ball around a static Sunderland side - Odemwingie took possession too easily on the right of the Sunderland box and comfortably held off Ferdinand before slipping a ball inside to Youssouf Mulumbu, whose clumsy sidefooted shot goalwards bobbled over Michael Turner’s leg and just inside Mignolet’s right-hand post.
Olsson then rose directly in front of goal eight yards out and bulleted a header goalwards which Mignolet blocked with his arm at point blank range.
It was a stunning stop but Sunderland failed to capitalise on the let-off and the Belgian could do little about the third goal of the afternoon to flash past him three minutes later.
It was a carbon copy of Albion’s second-goal – once again the ball passed around Sunderland’s retreating players, Steven Reid eventually feeding the ball forward to Odemwingie on the right, he squared to Scharner unmarked 12 yards out and the passed the ball inside Mignolet’s left-hand post to give Albion the lead for the first time in the game.
Sunderland pressed in the final few minutes for an equaliser, looking for a facesaver as their fans headed to the exits in their droves.
Sunderland must travel to the West Midlands this weekend – to face Birmingham City – and finally look to secure their safety. Fans though will travel there with hope rather than expectation.