Gerard Houllier claimed recently that he is facing his biggest challenge in altering the fortunes at Aston Villa. This morning it looks like a task beyond the 63-year-old Frenchman, whose only contribution of note since taking over from Martin O'Neill is to drag the club into the bottom three for the first time in eight years.
The embarrassment of Emile Heskey's sending-off and David Bardsley's 80th-minute goal, which condemned Houllier to another miserable night in front of his own supporters was made worse by the Holte End's rousing rendition of "you're getting sacked in the morning" as he walked to the dressing room after the final whistle.
"Of course it hurts, but at the same time I can understand their reaction. What is important is the backing of the chairman and the chief executive. I know it is not easy for them at the moment," said Houllier.
"We have to stay together. That will make us stronger. I understand their frustrations. I spoke with Paul Faulkner after the game and he was very supportive. When I hear things like that from the supporters it makes me more determined to put things right.
"I don't doubt Mr Lerner's firm support and determination to get things right at the club. We are in this together for better or for worse." Right now it is worse. For all the talk by Houllier of the impressive draw against Chelsea last Sunday being clear proof that there is nothing wrong with the spirit, one performance does not carry much clout when measured against the poverty that had preceded events at Stamford Bridge.
Heskey was shown a straight red by referee Peter Walton for pushing his hand in the face of Jordan Henderson in the 65th minute and although Boudewijn Zenden was also dismissed in the closing minutes for his second yellow card it did not prevent Sunderland winning only their second game away from the Stadium of Light this season.
Unfortunately for Steve Bruce the victory was overshadowed by the loss of David Meyler on a stretcher after 35 minutes with what he fears is a recurrence of the cruciate ligament injury that he suffered in May last year against Manchester United. The youngster was only five games into his comeback when he collapsed without a single player around him and Bruce said: "I am pleased with the result, but I am devastated for Meyler and it takes the edge off it. He is a great boy and all he wanted to do was to get fit. All he wants to do is play football. I am kicking myself for asking him to play two games in three days, but I did not have anyone to pick who could have the impact he could have," said Bruce. Danny Welbeck suffered a hamstring injury in the second half and will have a scan today which may force Bruce to reappraise his plans for the January transfer market.
Aston Villa (4-4-2) Friedel, Cuellar, Dunne, Collins, Clark, A Young, Reo-Coker (Bannan, 88), Petrov (Albrighton, 88), Downing, Agbonlahor, Heskey.
Sunderland (4-5-1) Gordon, Bardsley, Ferdinand, Bramble, Richardson, Elmohamady, Meyler (Zenden, 39), Henderson, Malbranque (Gyan, 55), Welbeck (Riveros, 83), Bent.
Referee P Walton (Northants).
Man of the match Bardsley.
Match rating 5/10.