No light at the end of the tunnel for Gus Poyet and struggling Sunderland
The word among dejected regulars at the Stadium of Light, after a humiliatingly meek surrender to Queens Park Rangers, was that for all recent signs of progress, Sunderland are back in big trouble.
It would be misleading to suggest no one saw it coming. As Nick Barnes, the BBC's local radio commentator, put it, the time-honoured solution for any team that cannot win, any player who cannot score, is to dispatch them to Sunderland.
So, after 11 straight defeats in Premier League away games, QPR -- managerless after Harry Redknapp's abrupt departure last week -- played as if winning on their travels came naturally. And Bobby Zamora, with a solitary goal this season, doubled his tally with a superb strike.
A game Sunderland cockily expected to win against such low-performing opposition was over by half-time. Most of the bright football had come from the visitors. Sunderland boss Gus Poyet started with both Connor Wickham and Jermain Defoe up front, but forgot to work out how to plug possible gaps on the flanks.
Again and again, Matt Phillips and Mauricio Isla marauded down their right to pose problems for a nervy home defence. And it was Phillips who provided both killer crosses, the first headed home by Leroy Fer, the second met just before the break by a terrific Zamora volley. As in the reverse fixture back in August last year, when QPR beat Sunderland 1-0 at Loftus Road, Joey Barton was frequently the midfielder who caught the eye, whatever Wearsiders may make of his past links with the tribal enemies of Newcastle United.
What did Sunderland offer in response? A firm first-half header by Connor Wickham, meeting an excellent Adam Johnson cross, was touched onto the bar by QPR keeper Rob Green and then saved by him on the goal line. There was a lot of bluster in the second half, but such further chances that came were hardly clear-cut and at virtually no stage did more than a consolation goal look like coming. Defoe rarely threatened to add to the two goals already notched since his return to the Premier League from Canada.
The applause before kickoff had been in memory of a former Sunderland striker, Nick Sharkey, who has died at the age of 71. He, a Defoe-like poacher, once scored five in one game. Against QPR, neither Defoe nor Wickham, the latter's first-half effort apart, looked like managing one between them, despite the improved Sunderland display after the interval.
It is true that Green had an excellent game in the QPR goal and that the Londoners' defence was impressively stubborn. Rio Ferdinand, Steven Caulker and Karl Henry all put in commendable shifts. But a team with the least guile and punch would surely have found a way past such resistance. Sunderland showed neither; more than once, QPR might have added to their lead.
Somehow, Sunderland stayed 14th after this defeat, but the gap between them and a relegation place was cut to two points. It was a collectively wretched performance that offered fans no reason to expect more than yet another desperate battle for survival, scant reward for crowds that dipped below 40,000 for the first time this season, and only because QPR's travelling support was almost invisible.
What is perhaps even more ominous is that the absence of quality or gumption was not even out of character.
It seems that whenever Sunderland show glimpses of revival, as has been the case recently with a win and a draw in the league and progress in the FA Cup, another stinker lies festering on the horizon.
Sunday brings another FA Cup tie, this time at Bradford City, surprising lower-league conquerors of Chelsea in the last round. It is an eminently winnable tie.
But so was QPR at home in the league. And while every true supporter values a good cup run, even a convincing victory at Valley Parade will feel somewhat hollow after the abject performance served up on Tuesday night.