Now, at least, Martin O'Neill will be under no illusions about the magnitude of the task facing him at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland, leading through Kieran Richardson's goal early in the second half, not only fluffed an opportunity to double their lead over Wolves from the spot but also conceded one goal to Steven Fletcher 25 seconds later and another with nine minutes remaining.
With 17 minutes to play, a Sunderland team under the stewardship of Eric Black – senior coach to the sacked Steve Bruce – looked to be edging towards only their third victory of the season after Richardson made a blindside run of almost 100 yards before finding the Wolves net.
The referee, Phil Dowd, then awarded Sunderland a penalty as Sebastian Larsson tumbled theatrically after what was, at the most, minimal contact with Jody Craddock on the 18-yard line. Justice was done when Wayne Hennessey swooped to his left to save the Swede's penalty, and as Wolves countered and Wes Brown inexplicably failed to head clear Matt Jarvis' cross, Fletcher converted a sharp downward header.
O'Neill, flanked by two of his tried and trusted aides, senior coach Steve Walford and goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh, then saw Wolves gain only their second win in 12 matches in controversial style. Jamie O'Hara appeared to use an arm in trying to control a centre by substitute Adam Hammill, the ball breaking for Fletcher to volley his fifth goal of the campaign from 12 yards.
Despite not wearing out the grass in the technical area with his customary caged-panther routine, it was soon evident O'Neill's 16-month absence has not dulled his appetite for the fray. Twice in the closing minutes of an unexpectedly open contest he was squirming and grimacing in his seat as both sides came close to breaking the deadlock.
First, Jarvis swung in a cross from the right flank which his fellow winger, Stephen Hunt, met with a meaty left foot only yards from goal. Keiren Westwood, playing in Sunderland's goal only because Craig Gordon and Simon Mignolet are injured, made a stunning left-handed save.
Within two minutes, Ji Dong-Won and Richardson combined to play in Stephane Sessegnon, Bruce's £6m recruit from Paris St-Germain. Wriggling past a defender, the impressive Beninese midfielder flicked the ball past Hennessey, only for Stephen Ward, promoted to captain in place of the dropped £7m centre-back Roger Johnson, to slide the ball off the line.
Westwood had already taken the opportunity to impress the new management team. Following a Jarvis corner kick in the ninth minute, Wolves had a plausible penalty appeal turned down as Lee Cattermole appeared to barge into David Edwards, but when the ball looped free to Fletcher, Westwood did well to clutch the ball on the line with the home attackers claiming it was over.
Mr Dowd was equally unmoved when Christophe Berra shadowed John O'Shea so closely at a Sunderland corner that the former Manchester United man toppled to the turf. There was no respite, however, for Cattermole after he fouled Kevin Doyle in the first half; the booking means he will miss O'Neill's first official match as manager, at home to Blackburn next Sunday.
The goal, both in the build-up and the execution, underlined the quality he will hope to coax to the fore on a more regular basis. Sunderland, fielding an entire back line who learned their trade at Manchester United, were forced on to deep defence, and when they cleared a cross, Richardson was barely six yards from his own goal line. He began galloping upfield as first Nicklas Bendtner and then Sessegnon moved the ball forward. The latter, showing good pass selection to complement his energy, selflessly rolled the ball into the path of the overlapping Richardson just inside Wolves' 18-yard area. Hennessey, seemingly expecting a diagonal shot into the far corner of his net, moved to his left and was beaten by a fierce shot that tore past him on the near post.
Wolves might have buckled but a combination of Fletcher's opportunism and Sunderland's fallibility ensured an outcome that means O'Neill's reign will start with Sunderland one place below where Aston Villa were when he arrived there, just above above the relegation zone.
God squad: Richardson's revelation
Kieran Richardson celebrated Sunderland's goal yesterday with an 'I belong to Jesus' t-shirt, but he is not the first to celebrate with a tribute to Christ: Kaka revealed the same slogan after Milan's triumph over Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final. Does Kieran think they are on an equal footing? (That's him and Kaka, not him and Jesus).
Substitutes: Wolves Hammill 6 (Hunt, 66), Ebanks-Blake 5 (Doyle, 66), Johnson (Craddock, 74). Sunderland Elmohamady 5 (Ji, 70), Noble (Sessegnon, 87). Booked: Wolves Zubar, Ebanks-Blake. Sunderland Cattermole, Richardson, Bendtner.
Man of the match Fletcher. Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Wolves 51% Sunderland 49%.
Attempts on target: Wolves 10 Sunderland 12.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire). Attendance 25,415.