As the masses spilled out of the Stadium of Light's concourses into last Saturday's dark autumnal evening the air was filled with a sense of disappointment, frustration and perhaps a feeling of de-ja-vu for many. I'm sure I was not alone, finding myself dissecting the match in a local bar with friends, scratching our heads trying to dissect what exactly is preventing Martin O'Neill's men from meeting their full potential this season. In the end we gave up and had another beer, or five.
When Gabriel Agbonlahor profited from some poor defending from Phil Bardsley who inexplicably allowed Christian Benteke, who had been a thorn in Sunderland's side all afternoon - especially in the air - to nod Stephen Ireland's right-wing cross back into the six yard box into the Villa forwards path, there was a sense of inevitability when the net rippled. The home side have desperately struggled to manage a shot on target as of late, never mind a goal and heck, even if the planets were to align and Atlantis was to rise from its watery grave, there was no chance we were ever going to get the two goals to go on and win the game.
However, once the dust had settled and the hangover's passed, were we really as bad as some of the punters will have you believe? Call it clutching at straws or blind faith and optimism but I really believe that there were signs of improvement to be found from last weekend's defeat.
Firstly: Lee Cattermole. The skipper put in an imperious shift, a performance full of verve and vigour as our combatitive mildfielder rolled up his sleeves and showed a genuine desire to win the game that has not been evident in many of his colleagues this season. Whilst the captain is man that very much divides opinion on Wearside and attracts derision elsewhere, his influence on this Sunderland side can now not be doubted, we are simply a better side when he is in the squad.
Secondly: There were reasons to be optimistic from our efforts in the final third for the first time in weeks. Sure, Fletcher's early goal was chalked off due to an offside call from the linesman, but the move which led to the "goal" was the most fluid football I have seen from the side in a number of games. Indeed Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon did seem to start the game well, working into some decent positions around the area but seemed all too reliant on an extra touch of the ball which was not available. The chance by that time had gone. Johnson was especially frustrating in this respect; however he is clearly completely bereft of confidence and possibly fitness, either way O'Neill needs to work some magic behind the scenes to restore his self-belief and sooner rather than later.
There were the dismissed claims for a penalty as Benteke clearly handled the ball in the area as John O'Shea helped on Adam Johnson's cross. Had Fletcher's early goal stood and a penalty correctly awarded and converted things may well have been different.
Many will believe my assessment of the Villa game to be blind optimism. For sure, I would agree that we didn't do nearly enough to win the game and the lack of attacking invention is extremely worrying and is something which needs to change I am still of the belief, for now, that we have the right ingredients, O'Neill just needs to come up with the right recipe.
As the squad returned to the training ground and presumably received a sizable ear-bashing, again, from the gaffer it should probably have came as no surprise that having done enough since the summer to win a short-term contract James McFadden has now been ruled out of contention with a hamstring injury. This kind of news is symptomatic of our luck at the moment and whether or not you believe the Scot to be the answer the SAFC conundrum it is another blow to the already small number of options O'Neill has to turn to. Indeed it is quite possible that this setback could rule McFadden out for entire duration of his deal, which may just see him added to the sizable list of pointless signings that have came through the doors of the Stadium of Light and join such illustrious company as Milton Nunez and Nicolas Medina.
So with the side desperate for a result, or even a performance, heading to Goodison Park for our annual defeat is probably the last thing we would have wished for. "Bogey Team" is a term that we have discussed at length on the website this week and whilst previous results and some heavy defeats over the years certainly seem to indicate that Everton hold such a grasp on Sunderland I am more tempted believe it is nothing more than superstition and, in reality, Everton are simply a better a side. Something which is painfully obvious this term and everything seems to point to it being another long old afternoon on Merseyside.
Or then again, as nothing else has made much sense so far this year, away win anyone?