If history has taught Sunderland fans anything - the younger generation at least - then it is nothing comes easy. Or, just as fittingly, that bad follows the good just as readily. It would be difficult to comprehend just how the best and worst moments of a mired season could come just two games apart unless you were already accustomed to such, but even then Christian Benteke's schoolyard bullying of Carlos Cuellar pushed even the most tried-and-tested supporter towards despair.
Yet the disparity between the two sides on Monday night only served to angst a fan base that had only just began looking forward to games again. The volume of senior appearances accumulated by the eleven that Paolo Di Canio had selected to start the game dwarfed that of the Aston Villa contingent. Seasoned campaigners, some of which experienced to the extent of commanding leadership roles, simply outfought; their clean slate still bearing scars of previous seasons, ones which Di Canio needs to act upon.
The game proved to be a harsh reminder of Craig Gardner's limitations in a two-man central midfield, the former Villa man going from ‘warrior' to wanderer upon his return from suspension. Di Canio's similarly high praise of Sebastian Larsson may need reconsidering also. There is little doubt that both players make decent cases to be part of any Sunderland squad going forward, yet both are persistent offenders when it comes to Sunderland relinquishing the ascendancy in games. Having equalised a minute after falling behind, it became the ninth game of the season whereby Sunderland had dropped points away from home after either scoring first or equalising - seven of which ending in defeats. Such a meagre mentality manifests at the Stadium of Light as well, again a would-be surprise when you consider the experience within Sunderland's ranks were you not to know any better.
Prior to the emphatic bubble-burst at Villa Park, there was an underlying sense of déjà vu that even Di Canio had picked up on. The Italian pondered in the local media whether the upturn in form was due to his presence or merely change; the increase in urgency and goals from long-range were the two characteristics that defined Martin O'Neill's first ten games, what followed proved to be a cheap imitation and a reliance on certain individuals.
Di Canio's ‘collective' mantra provokes more encouragement about what lay ahead, especially at a time when the club seems to be renovating key areas. Put simply, the most important aspect to improve is the first team, and with a number of player contracts and the new television rights deal aligning themselves with the summer transfer window, Di Canio will have no better chance to enhance the quality and options he has at his disposal - an opportunity O'Neill passed up by his own admission due to the initial turnaround in form from those he inherited.
Whilst his side still needs to secure its Premier League place for next season, Di Canio will be wary of history repeating itself - although he has time on his side in the fight against complacency. Where O'Neill presided over nine games without a win as the season drew to a close, his successor has just three more games to preserve Sunderland's top-flight status. What followed for O'Neill not only sealed his fate but seemingly that of the scouting department this week, now Di Canio essentially has a blank canvas from which to create a team befitting his majesty.