Sunderland 1 Wigan Athletic 2

TWO minutes into his post-match press conference, Steve Bruce’s phone rang.

Lee Cattermole of Sunderland is tackled by Jordi Gomez of Wigan

TWO minutes into his post-match press conference, Steve Bruce’s phone rang.

“That will be Ellis Short,” someone sniggered, hinting at a summons.

At Sunderland, the time for joking is over. On Saturday, things became serious.

Long before defeat to Wigan was confirmed by referee Kevin Friend’s final whistle – with Friends like these, et cetera – the catcalls had begun, intermittently and almost exclusively from the usual suspects in the north west corner.

However, from the 93rd-minute moment Franco Di Santo was handed victory on a plate, the – let’s be honest – sheer hatred directed at their Geordie manager by a significant number of fans housed in at least three different sections of the Stadium of Light was astonishing.

“It bordered on abuse,” said Bruce, in gross understatement.

Some, it seems, will never take to him, and not in these circumstances.

Despite a promising start – Sebastian Larsson scoring after eight minutes followed by a period of pressure and chances – here was yet another story of missed opportunities, and Sunderland are not good enough to prevail in games when incapable of taking advantage of dominant spells.

With such fine margins separating so many sides in the Premier League, it often requires more than one goal to set one apart from another, to leave an opponent of such similarity trailing in one’s wake.

When Plan A failed to equip Sunderland with the wherewithal to kill the Latics off, little evidence of a Plan B, of ideas, of enterprise, emerged.

Add one contentious penalty – Larsson adjudged to have tripped Victor Moses – and chronically inept decisions by Keiren Westwood and Wes Brown which combined to gift-wrap Wigan the win and you wondered if Short might be ruing the sentiments he documented in the matchday programme – and revising them.

While admitting disappointment at the Black Cats’ league position, their owner’s first pronouncement as chairman declared him “optimistic” and in no mood to panic.

That patience will be tested to the limit now.

Doggedly, Bruce insisted he will not walk but the pressure – on himself, on Short, on the players – may become irresistible.

It was already mounting from the moment Bruce – with honesty typical of the man but not of most managers – publicly acknowledged this current series of games, the last and next two, comprised “must-wins”.

If not at home to Wigan, when?

Roberto Martinez’s men may be better than the statistics suggest, but they still make grim reading.

Bottom before kick-off, without a win since August and without an away victory all season. Two goals on their travels, one point from nine games.

Yet it is Sunderland’s figures which matter more. Three home wins in 2011, 21 points accrued from the last 81 on offer. With a long way yet to go for what remains a new team, though two points above the relegation zone, they are not in danger just yet.

However, in the absence of tangible success, supporters at least demand signs of progress, reason to believe. Hope.

Right now, for many, the only belief is the development of the past two years has stalled and Bruce lacks the solutions to realign the ascent.

In that context, the brittle, grudging acceptance by some of a Newcastle fan managing Sunderland was always only ever another run of bad results away from imploding.

Yet consider the options. What, realistically, would Bruce’s departure achieve?

Not a guarantee of a change in fortunes, certainly. More upheaval, definitely.

Who is available and willing to replace him, and capable of making a difference, whatever January brings?

No doubt the debate will rage on, but such arguments were far from anyone’s thoughts at 3.08pm on Saturday.

By then, Larsson – back from suspension in place of Ahmed Elmohamady – had banished the early butterflies by stabbing in after Ali Al-Habsi spilled Nicklas Bendtner’s shot and Kieran Richardson’s follow-up.

That was just the ticket, and suitably becalmed, Sunderland went about the ensuing half-hour with a proactive sense of urgency and intent, if not, though Al-Habsi played a part, a corresponding ruthlessness.

First the Wigan goalkeeper saved low to his left from Richardson, deployed just behind Bendtner but often stationed alongside him.

From a Larsson corner, Brown headed straight at Al-Habsi, who then beat out a Larsson free-kick and Phil Bardsley’s follow-up before fumbling a flicked header from John O’Shea behind.

Good chances all, but the best was spurned on 39 minutes by Bardsley, leaning back and lifting over the bar when Richardson’s astute pass left him with only Al-Habsi to beat.

Though at this stage Wigan were barely in it, Sunderland ought to have had the game won and, when the visitors then enjoyed a couple of semi-threatening forays, the need for a second goal was obvious.

Of course, with crushing inevitability, that was when Wigan duly equalised.

Having much too easily allowed Moses past him on 44 minutes, Larsson gave chase into the left of the box and just enough proximity, if not contact, to invite the visiting player to go to ground. From the spot, Jordi Gomez levelled.

Cue a bout of booing, but after half-time Sunderland again bore the look of a side keen to make things happen.

Missed chances again, though. When those failings depressed Sunderland into a cul-de-sac of invention, the alternatives – David Vaughan, Craig Gardner, Ji Dong-Won – allied with Larsson and Colback re-deployed as full-backs merely served to emphasise theirs are not game-changers.

By contrast, Wigan’s replacements won the game.

Yes, first Richardson curled wide, shot at Al-Habsi and ought to have done better than head Colback’s 78th-minute cross off target.

Ten minutes later the most vocal of anti-Bruce protests yet heard dominoed about the ground, and five minutes after that – when an ill-advised one-two between Westwood and Brown saw James McArthur rob the latter and set up Di Santo for a tap-in – they got a good deal worse.

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