Sunderland have not won away from the North East since January. Seven weeks after Gustavo Poyet took over as coach, it is still extremely difficult to tell if they are making progress towards putting that right.
The Uruguayan is yet to take charge of a Premier League away game that has been anything other than freakish.
At Swansea City, after just two training sessions with the bulk of his squad, and at Hull City, the Black Cats shot themselves horribly in the foot – twice.
Against Stoke City, the culprit was very definitely referee Kevin Friend.
But before anyone starts tuning up the violins for another sob story, Sunderland were already a goal down before Friend’s bewildering decision to send Wes Brown off.
Poyet was honest enough to admit, as his opposite number Mark Hughes was quick to point out, “That doesn’t necessarily mean that if it had been 11 v 11 we would have won.”
The visitors had played well to that point but Robert Huth looked as likely to score for them as anyone in the bright yellow away shirts.
Sunderland have found the net twice away from home under Poyet, both at Swansea. The only problem is, it was the wrong one. Beating the opposition goalkeeper has been beyond them since August.
With Brown out of the picture it became that much harder. They lacked the counter-attacking threat shown at Hull – clearly they are better with nine men than ten – and not only did they lose again, but it gave a relegation rival a first top-flight victory since August.
It was hard not to feel sympathy for Poyet. At Hull both Sunderland’s first-half sendings off had been correct decisions.
Poyet protested Lee Cattermole’s after the match, but his decision not to appeal was telling.
In the Britannia Stadium Press room he changed tack, challenging the Football Association to rescind Brown’s dismissal so his club does not have to even bother filling out the paperwork. They should, but if they do not, Sunderland will surely appeal this time.
If they lose it, we might as well all pack up and go home.
It was not simply that Brown’s 36th-minute challenge on Charlie Adam was not a bad tackle, it was a very good one. Hughes, who matched Poyet’s offer to show the incident to the Press on a laptop – the Black Cats coach theatrically brought a computer with him – described the challenge as “a little bit reckless”. It was not.
Brown was controlled as he slid in, forcefully but fairly, to take the ball off Adams’ toes. His boot was off the ground, studs down, but only the inch or two needed to make contact with the ball.
If there was any with Adam, it was nothing for a sturdy Scottish midfielder to get upset about. Stoke’s bench took offence to the incident, right in front of them, but no one else seemed to, not even Adam.
Play continued for a good couple of seconds and without so much as a twitch from the officious dugout-side linesman so it was a major surprise when Friend suddenly decided to award a free-kick. That he then reached for his back pocket was astonishing.
Referees are rightly told to be careful about raised feet nowadays but if Friend wanted a definition of a reckless high boot, he got it in the second half. Asmir Begovic came sprinting off his line and got his studs on the ball before accidentally planting them in Steven Fletcher’s chest. Rather than give a penalty, Friend waved play on.
Stoke’s fans booed Fletcher for making a meal of the challenge as he gingerly lay on the floor rubbing his recently-dislocated shoulder.
Poyet was obviously fully committed to this supposed act of deceit because soon he substituted the only Sunderland player who looked capable of scoring.
That, more than bad luck or bad refereeing, is the Black Cats’ big problem. With 11 men they shifted the ball around nicely. It was nearly-but-not-quite football.
A move of saintly patience ended in the 25th minute when Ki Sung-Yeung tried to play a pass over the top for Fletcher.
Had the Scot scored, television technicians would have been winding back the tape to count the number of passes, but the last of them was fractionally over-hit.
When Fletcher was picked out, things got interesting. Adam Johnson chipped a lovely pass to him after 14 minutes but again Begovic was quickly off his line, this time to save. Seconds later Huth, under pressure from Fletcher, hit the ball past his goalkeeper but Ryan Shawcross was alert enough to clear.
That apart, a couple of long-range deflected shots were as good as it got.
Not that Stoke were besieging Vito Mannone.
They too are trying to play with more elegance without the goalscoring ruthlessness to make the most of it.
Meaty early challenges from Brown and Phil Bardsley showed Sunderland were not going to make it easy for them.
Marko Arnautovic had a shot blocked on the turn but Adam always looked the most likely.
It might not have been quite what he had in mind, but his free-kick after another non-existent Brown foul landed on the roof of the net, another caused confusion but no damage.
When Cameron played the ball down the line for Steven Nzonzi he passed it into Adam’s path to open the scoring. Six minutes later Sunderland had lost two players.
Brown’s dismissal prompted the withdrawal of Emanuele Giaccherini. For all his talent, the Italian just cannot get a foothold in Poyet’s team.
That was it, really.
In a role reversal from Hull, the team with the numerical advantage always looked more likely to score on the counter-attack. Poyet tried a full house of substitutions, each bringing tactical tweaks, to no avail.
With nine minutes left Peter Crouch played the sort of exquisite defence-splitting pass Stoke strikers were not supposed to in previous seasons, and Nzonzi calmly finished.
Was it harsh on Sunderland? We will never know.
All we can say is after two home games of satisfying progress, Sunderland are back on the bottom of the Premier League.