What Aston Villa would give now for the top-six finishes Martin O'Neill routinely delivered to their door. Premier League survival is the more modest aim now.
The club the manager also led to two Wembley appearances are inching towards safety in "singles", draw number 15 of an underwhelming campaign stretching their depressing sequence to 13 games with only one victory.
O'Neill was much more booed than applauded as he navigated the touchline before kick-off – evidence that his resignation on the eve of last season is the most powerful memory of him in these parts. "The reaction to me was natural and understandable," he said. "I was expecting it."
With two former Villa players and three ex-Birmingham City men in the Sunderland line-up, there was no shortage of alternative targets for hecklers who had their moment when a midfielder who played for both second city clubs, Craig Gardner, was sent off in stoppage-time.
Villa, so bright in the opening half-hour, had by then walked a tightrope as Sunderland increasingly threatened, the biggest talking point coming 15 minutes from time when the assistant in front of the travelling fans ruled Nicklas Bendtner offside as he stretched to guide in Seb Larsson's searching low right-wing centre. "Incorrect," was O'Neill's judgement of the call. "He told one ofmy players to watch it on TV. I hope he watches it before settling down forhis fish supper."
Bendtner had previously been denied by Stephen Ireland's goalline clearanceand James McClean's 23rd birthday today would have been jollier had he not stabbed Stéphane Sessègnon's pass over from five yards and then had a header saved. That's more than four games without a goal and five without a win for Sunderland.
Earlier, the traffic had been largely the other way, especially in a first half in which Bendtner headed Sunderland's only chance over from four yards. But Villa were all promise and no end product.
Simon Mignolet had a clearance charged down by Gabby Agbonlahor but recovered well to save Andreas Weimann's follow-up, and Agbonlahor – on his 250th appearance – was denied when Matt Kilgallon diverted his shot over the bar.
Charles N'Zogbia saw a low drive touched wide superbly by the keeper and Weimann twice rippled the side netting before infuriating Alex McLeish by passing rather than shooting at the end. "We had enough chances to win and still have four huge battles," said McLeish, who will be without James Collins through a groin injury at home to Bolton Wanderers on Tuesday.
Gardner was given his marching orders for a second yellow card, body-checking Marc Albrighton after earlier bringing down Chris Herd.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Given; Cuellar, Collins (Hutton, 43), Baker, Lichaj; N'Zogbia (Bannan, 84), Ireland, Herd, Albrighton; Weimann, Agbonlahor (Heskey, 49).
Sunderland (4-4-2): Mignolet; O'Shea, Turner, Kilgallon, Bardsley; Larsson, Craig Gardner, Colback, McClean; Sessègnon, Bendtner (Campbell, 80).
Referee Anthony Taylor.
Man of the match McClean (Sunderland).
Match rating 6/10.Reuse content