Up in the stand, Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson rose from their seats at the final whistle and tried their best not to betray a flicker of alarm at another defeat for David Moyes' Manchester United, in a slump that is threatening to break club records.
Down on the touchline, a manager who must feel that he is caught in his own version of The Damned Utd with the history of this great club all around him and nothing but abject mediocrity on the pitch. This is three straight defeats in the house that Ferguson built. It may only be the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final and yet there are no longer any guarantees about this United team.
How far can they fall? This was a defeat to the side bottom of the Premier League, albeit a club that beat Chelsea in the previous round. A United team has not lost three straight games since the end of the 2000-2001 season when they were already crowned Premier League champions and the players were busy celebrating a third consecutive title in one of the greatest periods of the Ferguson era.
There was a time when United beat Sunderland regularly and sold them the players they did not need. These old certainties are crumbling into the dust as the club stumble into the post-Ferguson era with a new manager who finds himself hanging on for a change in fortune.
“I just sense it is on the verge of turning,” Moyes said, after expressing disbelief at referee Andre Marriner's decision to award Sunderland what turned out to be the decisive penalty. That was for a tangle between Tom Cleverley and Adam Johnson which ten replays could not provide the conclusive evidence that contact was made. Certainly, he United man offered the Sunderland substitute the opportunity to tumble over his outstretched leg.
Moyes compared that to what he regarded as a foul on Adnan Januzaj in the defeat to Spurs. It would be fair to say that everything that could go wrong for him, is going wrong for him. Even so, this is an abject time in the club's history and when the TV camera picks out Ferguson looking on from the stands, it only serves to remind what has gone before.
That said, there was vociferous support for Moyes himself from the 5,000-strong United fans which he recognised later as a major endorsement. They sang about their new manager throughout the game and, had they wavered, then the pressure on him would be immeasurably worse.
As for Sunderland, this was a fine performance with a winning penalty from Fabio Borini after Ryan Giggs had got the final touch when Sunderland broke through for the first goal. There was not a great deal of finesse but plenty of hard work, after Nemanja Vidic equalised. Not least from a back four that featured three former United players in John O'Shea, Wes Brown and Phil Bardsley.
Gallery: Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1
Gallery: Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1
1/6 Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1
Ryan Giggs diverts the ball into his own net
Ryan Giggs looks downcast after scoring an own goal
3/6 Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1
David Moyes and Phillip Neville bark instructions from the sideline
4/6 Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1
Nemanja Vidic towers above the Sunderland defence to level the score
5/6 Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1
Fabio Borini scores from the penalty spot
6/6 Sunderland 2 Manchester United 1
Borini jumps for joy after scoring the winner
When Gus Poyet's players can stay disciplined and stick to the gameplan, they look like a side capable of staying in the Premier League. Whether they can hold out at Old Trafford in the second leg in a fortnight's time is a different matter, but recent results suggest they will never have a better chance of doing so.
Moyes made seven changes from the United team that lost at home to Swansea in the FA Cup third round on Sunday and they looked the better for it. Still without Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, not even ready for the bench yet, this was a more capable team with Vidic, Michael Carrick and Giggs at the heart of it.
Even so it was Januzaj who was the most eye-catching attacking threat. Halfway through the first half he turned and weaved around three challenges before Bardsley was forced to bring him down. The Sunderland right-back is from the old-school of United academy boys - and there were three in the home side - while Januzaj is very much the modern European starlet.
Of all the United teams of the last two decades, Januzaj had to walk into this one. It is getting to the stage where Moyes cannot afford to leave him out the side. When Giggs made his breakthrough into the United team almost 23 years ago, he first had to win a place from Lee Sharpe. Januzaj is only 18 and, given the current absentees, he often looks like United's best option.
The teenager had the ball in the Sunderland goal on 37 minutes at the second attempt but Giggs, whom the first shot had struck, was ruled to be offside. Once they had settled down to play, United looked the more confident of the two teams although they struggled once again to gather the momentum that has been the hallmark of the club's best sides.
Giggs hit the bar a minute after Januzaj's disallowed goal, a shot that took a very slight deflection on the way. On the opposite wing to Januzaj, Antonio Valencia, one of the four survivors from Sunday's starting XI, struggled to make much progress beyond the full-back Marcos Alonso.
Then, in injury-time at the end of the first half, came the Sunderland goal. A free-kick that United's players were still contesting when they left for the break moments later, was played to the back post where Brown turned it across goal. Bardsley ran onto it but, from two yards out, it was Giggs who got the final touch.
It was a rare own goal in the 40-year-old's United career, another unwelcome anomaly for Moyes. This time, however, his team did not look so far off the pace as they had done in their two previous defeats. With six minutes of the second half gone Vidic out-jumped O'Shea and Brown at the back post and sent a decisive header from Cleverley's corner past Vito Mannone.
As against Swansea, the equaliser should have been the basis of United taking control of the game and they failed to do so. It was the same again against Sunderland. They lost Jonny Evans to injury and Chris Smalling replaced him in the back four. Then Vidic was careless with a clearing header and presented Sebastian Larsson with a great opportunity. David De Gea came to United's rescue.
For the penalty, Marriner gave himself time to listen to the verdict of his assistant, who Moyes later claimed had his view blocked by Patrice Evra. De Gea was well-beaten by Borini's shot. In the aftermath of the decision Rafael Da Silva got himself booked and a silly challenge minutes later was overlooked by Marriner. The Da Silva boys have had a bad few days.
It was Januzaj who was the most likely to get the equaliser although his best chance, a shot that just missed Mannone's far post, came 21 minutes from time. Otherwise, United faded, doing their manager no favours once again.
Man of the match Brown.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee A Marriner (West Mids).