With a puff of the cheeks, a cross of the arms, having just had a gentle moan at the fourth official - well, old habits die hard - Roy Keane departed down the tunnel in thoughtful mood. When he emerged, it was to declare: "This was a good reality check for everyone, especially the players and the staff."
The Irishman did not include the faithful, but he could well have done. For all the extravagant prophecies in some quarters in the wake of two successive away victories under the new manager the Premiership remains a distant prize indeed.
Keane ran the gamut of emotions yesterday as he learned why the Sunderland manager's job should carry a government health warning: moments of divine pleasure, but also ones that can seriously imperil your reputation.
A splendid equaliser from the substitute Tobias Hysen, son of the ex-Liverpool player Glenn, and a stirring finish could not conceal the fact that Sunderland had merited no more than this draw against visitors whose spirited exhibition here belied their lowly position. As Keane added: "We're still in the bottom half of the League, and people have got a bit carried away."
Even if he achieves promotion, as others including his predecessor Mick McCarthy did, can he build on that impetus? It was significant that in yesterday's programme notes the chairman Niall Quinn's confidence in his manager - "a man who I am convinced is going to be one of the world's great managers" - was issued with the caveat: "Roy has a really tough job here - ask any of the managers who were here before him."
At the start all looked propitious enough. There was a thunderous ovation for the manager on his home debut, and Dwight Yorke too, who began on the bench. Before the game Keane was anxious to protest that the transformation under him "has all come from the players." Presumably by half-time he was saying that not nearly enough had come from the players. Or words to that effect.
City, too near the lower reaches of the division for the satisfaction of their followers and the comfort of their manager, Rob Kelly, applied most of the initial pressure, but Keane's men came closest to releasing the shackles which imprisoned this contest for too much of the first period. Chris Brown was narrowly wide with a header from a Ross Wallace free-kick.
When Yorke stepped out to replace the injured Daryl Murphy after 15 minutes, it renewed conviction that the opening goal was not too distant. Immediately, another free-kick offered a chance for the former Celtic defender Stanislav Varga. His volley was turned aside by Paul Henderson. An excellent move involving Liam Miller, Yorke and another ex-Celtic man, Wallace, ended with the latter shooting wide. But then it all became strangely subdued as Leicester finished the half the stronger. And as we know, the Sunderland man is not a man who appreciates such an atmosphere.
On the half-hour, a gum-chewing Keane - now who does that remind us of? - dressed in a sharp suit, appeared to appeal for composure amongst his players. He skulked around the technical area like the menacing leader of a street gang, hands in his pocket. Finally, after half an hour, as things went terribly quiet both on the field and in the stands, a clap of the hands. One suspects he may have been rather more demonstrative in the dressing room.
There was no improvement though, and three minutes after the interval City were rewarded for their first-half endeavours. Miller lost possession to Andy Johnson, he found Matty Fryatt, and the England Under-19 striker coolly dispatched a precision drive past Ben Alnwick.
Neill Collins was replaced by a 19-year-old local boy, Grant Leadbitter, who late on incurred some of the Keane wrath Manchester United players became all too familiar with over the years; then Hysen came on for Miller just after the hour. The Swedish international struck within a minute. The midfielder, brought to the club for £1.7 million by Quinn, received the ball on the right, cut inside and lifted the crowd with a venomous, beautifully placed low shot just inside the post. The scorer rushed over to the touchline, where Keane raise a fist in triumph.
"I've left him [Hysen] out for the last few games, but he has responded well," said Keane. "I'm learning about the players every single day, and he hasn't come knocking on my door - like one or two others."
Sunderland looked far sharper, but the visitors' goalkeeper remained relatively untroubled. Brown's header over the bar was the closest Sunderland came to a winner. Keane conceded it was "a tired performance" after three games in a week.
Yesterday's third in the sequence was when fantasy became reality.Reuse content