They had travelled hopefully from Wearside and returned chastened. Instead of a match to reinforce their hopes that what goes down also comes up if you are good enough, Sunderland were re-awakened to the fact that getting out of the First Division will be harder than getting into it. They lost 2-0 and were lucky to get away from Bramall Lane yesterday without a hiding.
Jan Age Fjortoft and Vassilis Borbokis scored in the first half but Brian Deane hit the bar in the last minute and was twice denied by Lionel Perez's body. As Petr Kachuro wasted two ripe opportunties and Borbokis could also have got another, the scoreline barely reflected the number of chances.
Nor, indeed, was it a true indicator of the possession, because Sunderland had the ball for 60 per cent of the game. If you spend an age getting from A to B, however, C becomes a near impossibility. Apart from Richard Ord's header on the hour which was cleared off the line by Dane Whitehouse, their attack had all the spite of cotton wool. "We are always second best," their manager, Peter Reid, admitted.
Which is not how you would describe United who, on this evidence, have bought wisely over the summer and whose own promotion hopes should not be disregarded. Deane, returning to Bramall Lane, rampaged round the pitch like an angry bull while Nicky Marker and Paul McGrath brought solidity to a team who have been prone to errors. The revelation was Borbokis.
Howard Kendall discovered him playing for AEK Athens and it could be that the previous manager's best legacy might be the pounds 750,000 Greek right wing-back. Borbokis bewitched the Sunderland defence yesterday, rendering Martin Scott and Michael Gray impotent as an attacking force as they tried to repulse his runs.
Borbokis took the free-kick after 32 minutes that Fjortoft met at the near post, flicking the ball over Perez for his 11th goal in 16 starts since he moved from Middlebrough. If the nature of that goal was predictable, however - with Deane and Fjortoft in the team Route One is always an option - the second was not, Borbokis scoring after Fjortoft had found him with a precise pass.
"He looks a very good player going forward," Nigel Spackman, United's caretaker-manager, said of his Greek debutant. "He has work to do on the defensive side but he has given us something special on the right." Borbokis is lucky. Sunderland have to work on attack and defence.
Goals: Fjortoft (32) 1-0; Borbokis (41) 2-0.
Sheffield United (5-3-2): Tracey; Holdsworth, McGrath, Tiler, Borbokis, Marker; Patterson, Whitehouse, W Quinn (Neilsen, 77); Fjortoft (Kachuro, 58), Deane. Substitute not used: Dibble (gk).
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Perez; Makin, Melville, Ord, Scott; Clark; Agnew, Rae (Williams, 71), Ball, M Gray; N Quinn. Substitutes not used: Bridges, Byrne.
Referee: G Cain (Bootle).
Booking: Sunderland Scott.
Man of the match: Borbokis.