Sunderland’s automatic promotion hopes have taken a major hit after losing 2-1 to bottom-of-the-table Doncaster Rovers at the Stadium of Light in their first match since the sacking of Lee Johnson.
What began as a party atmosphere to acknowledge the return of former striker, Jermain Defoe, rapidly turned into a horror show, as they now lie eight points behind the league leaders Rotherham.
An abysmal first-half display from the Black Cats resulted in conceding two goals from Rovers debutant Reo Griffiths and club veteran Tommy Rowe, but arguably the first half performance reflected large parts of last weekend’s 6-0 hammering to Bolton.
Sunderland lacked everything that a promotion contender needs, as the search for a head coach seems like it’s reaching its conclusion, and on the basis of Saturday’s performance, it’s a case of the sooner, the better for a new head coach.
Despite all of the talk in the week being about the return of Jermain Defoe, the veteran striker only had a place on the bench, with the interim team of Mike Dodds and Michael Proctor selecting largely the same side as last weekend’s defeat to Bolton - the only change proving to be the return of Alex Pritchard ahead of Leon Dajaku.
As expected in the opening stages, Sunderland came out of the blocks in a decent style, backed on by the electric atmosphere that the 38,000+ crowd brought, but too often their possession in the final third wasn’t taken advantage of.
Their play was too sluggish and predictable, and for Doncaster, far too easy to defend against, even - with no disrespect to Sunderland’s visitors - for the team bottom of the table.
To create a list of what Sunderland were lacking would prove to be too long and time-consuming, but their attacking threat was summed up in the first couple of moments: Stewart’s header drew a simple save from the Doncaster Rovers goalkeeper.
And, in truth, that was the Black Cats’ only real opportunity of the match, as despite all of the Wearsiders’ possession and territory in the final third, there was a feeling of unease and a side that was running low on confidence, and the visitors exploited this in rather-easy circumstances to take the lead.
A simple ball over the Sunderland backline somehow carved them wide open, and combined with Hoffmann’s hesitancy, again, in his penalty box, Reo Griffiths was able to fire the ball past the home keeper.
What began as a celebration for Defoe’s second arrival on Wearside was turning into a toxic first half as the home faithful began to get frustrated as the Black Cats lacked creativity, confidence and composure in trying to build forward, and suddenly, Gary McSheffrey’s side were pulling all of their strings.
Hoffmann had to be quick to react to Joseph Olowu's follow-up effort, after Josh Martin’s initial effort was only parried away by the Sunderland shot-stopper.
Sunderland were on the ropes and were lucky not to be further behind before they actually were, as Charlie Seaman’s shot was powered against the left post.
Rovers’ initial corner was cleared, before the visitors recycled possession and sent the ball back into the area - Hoffmann was left helpless as Tommy Rowe thundered his effort past the Sunderland goalie to double their lead.
The interim duo of Dodds and Proctor needed to do something at the break, and by moving Gooch slightly further forward, it allowed for the Black Cats to have more bodies in the final third, but even still, they lacked the danger in those areas.
Minus a 10-15 minute period within the second half Sunderland continued to struggle, but had they had the officials on their side, the ultimate story may have followed a different script.
After Winchester won back the ball on the byline inside of the penalty area, a cross to Ross Stewart was nodded goalwards and caused Jonathan Mitchell many issues, but the assistant judged that the ball didn’t cross the line, contrary to streaming pictures.
There is no doubt that Sunderland had the better of the second half chances, but with a combination of woodwork and brilliant goalkeeping from Mitchell, the Black Cats continued to search for their first goal.
Embleton struck the left post from his left-footed curling shot, before Danny Batth’s header was flicked wide of the left post.
The introduction of both Jermain Defoe and Jay Matete added to the energy and passion inside of the Stadium of Light, but neither really added that much to the contest.
An 89th-minute strike from Corry Evans - after Pritchard’s effort was spilled by Mitchell in the Doncaster goal - increased hope inside the stadium, but during the four minutes of additional time, Sunderland were unable to create anything meaningful as their dreadful run continues.
And yet again, fans are left scratching their heads about where Sunderland go from here.
Of course, the Black Cats are managerless, and without a couple of their most senior figures, but now seems the time that Sunderland’s automatic promotion hopes are gaining less and less strength.
Both Rotherham and Wigan are building momentum, but the Black Cats are faltering - and in the most spectacular, embarrassing fashion.
A defeat against the league’s bottom club on home turf has to leave many fans, and indeed players, asking questions about the team’s aspirations for the remainder of the season.
There’s no shying away from the fact that appointing a new head coach (and, quick) is crucial. Both Cheltenham and Wimbledon lie ahead in the next week, and are crucial games if we are to get back to winning ways.
Keane or no Keane Sunderland need to learn their lessons from Saturday, because at the moment, the Black Cats’ automatic promotion hopes are arguably hanging on a knife edge.