The fear is back on Wearside. Home victories over Liverpool and Arsenal, and an impressive draw at Manchester United, suggested this might be a season of mid-table comfort, but as Saturday's failure to beat a faltering Wigan Athletic stretched Sunderland's run without a win to 11 games, relegation is, anew, a realistic threat.
After draws against Stoke City and Wigan – in two games described by their manager Steve Bruce as "must-win" – Tuesday's visit to bottom-of-the-table Portsmouth really has become a game in which Sunderland cannot afford slip-ups. That Sunderland have not won away from home since the first day of the season, nor won at Fratton Park since 1997, does not bode well.
Injuries may have sparked the crisis, but although players have returned, confidence has not. "There are quality players here as there were at Spurs but they've had a bad run of results," said Alan Hutton, whose performance on the right on his debut after his loan move from Tottenham was one of the few positives for Sunderland. "We just need a bit of confidence. There's no doubt we've got talent, but maybe their heads are down a wee bit."
Bruce lamented Sunderland's luck – and perhaps they were unfortunate that Kenwyne Jones hit the post and a late Darren Bent shot hit a prone Jones on the line – but then Charles N'Zogbia and James McCarthy spurned two clear chances for Wigan, and to a large extent Sunderland brought the goal they conceded upon themselves. First Lorik Cana was slow to react, allowing Mohamed Diame to pinch the ball in midfield, then Matthew Kilgallon missed his challenge; only then did the luck kick in as Diame unleashed a ferocious shot that Roberto Martinez admitted surprised even him.
Panic rapidly set in. The gremlins Niall Quinn spoke of when he took over as chairman four years ago, the legacy of dreadful relegation seasons, are still there, lurking in the ether to breed doubt.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Hutton, Turner, Kilgallon, McCartney; Henderson (Zenden, 70), Cana, Cattermole, Reid (Benjani, 87); Jones, Bent. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Bardsley, Da Silva, Campbell, Malbranque.
Wigan Athletic (4-5-1): Kirkland; Boyce, Caldwell, Bramble, Figueroa; N'Zogbia, Scharner (Moreno, 75), Thomas, Diame, McCarthy; Rodallega (Moses, 84). Substitutes not used: Stojkovic (gk), Scotland, Gomez, Sinclair, Melchiot.
Referee: S Attwell (Warks).
Booked: Sunderland McCartney, Cattermole, Jones, Cana; Wigan Athletic Figueroa, N'Zogbia, Rodallega, McCarthy, Caldwell.
Man of the match: N'Zogbia.
Attendance: 38,350.Reuse content