From the lower section of the main stand at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, it was difficult to follow the action at times. The eye was inevitably drawn to the black-suited figure on the touchline performing 90 minutes of histrionics. The manager of the Tigers was like Tigger on speed as he jumped, gyrated, gesticulated, screamed and whistled at every kick on the field.
"Brown, you're a disgrace to South Shields," one member of the audience felt moved to bellow as the fourth official ushered Phil Brown fleetingly back towards the dugout for vehemently disputing a decision which the monitor in the press box showed was clearly a free-kick to Sunderland.
South Shields is perhaps best known as the hometown of the late Catherine Cookson, that prolific purveyor of romantic fiction. There was precious little love in the air as Brown, a son of the South Tyneside town, and also a boyhood Sunderland fan, revisited his North-east roots. As the Hull City manager himself observed in the press room afterwards: "I seemed to be picking one or two fights today. Am I safe going out tonight?"
The more pertinent question is whether Brown's Hull side are safe going out on Premier League duty in their remaining five fixtures – starting with Liverpool at home next Saturday and finishing with Manchester United at the KC Stadium on 24 May – now that only Blackburn Rovers and goals scored stand between the Tigers and the clutches of the bottom three. Their downward spiral continued on Saturday with a fourth defeat in five games, courtesy of a Djibril Cissé header from a flicked-on Andy Reid cross two minutes into first-half injury time.
According to the Sunderland manager, Ricky Sbragia, the catalyst for a vital victory that moved his side a place and a point above Hull, was not so much the Black Cats' own imperilled position as a piece of unwitting inspiration from Brown. The Scot had been so enraged by a morning newspaper interview with Brown he stuck it on the dressing-room wall. "Phil said something about Sunderland Football Club, how the players have underachieved," Sbragia said. "It annoyed me and it motivated the players."
It transpired that the substance of Brown's supposed attack amounted to little more than a statement of the obvious, an observation that "Sunderland are in a predicament that they won't have been expecting, having spent the money that they did".
Still, dressed up with a headline screaming "Black Cats a spent force," it did the trick for Sunderland. Victorious for the first time in eight matches, and blessed with a less daunting run-in than either Hull or Middlesbrough, they will probably be spending a penny or two in the Premier League next season.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Davenport, Ferdinand, Collins; Edwards (Malbranque, 78), Leadbitter, Tainio, Reid (Richardson, 76); Cissé (Murphy, 90), Jones. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Ben-Haim, Yorke, McShane.
Hull City (4-4-2): Myhill; Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson; Geovanni (Mendy, 74), Kilbane, Boateng (Barmby, 77), Marney (Folan, 68); Manucho, Fagan. Substitutes not used: Duke (gk), Doyle, Halmosi, Cousin.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Sunderland Cissé, Richardson; Hull City Turner, Kilbane, Fagan.
Man of the match: Leadbitter.