MARTIN O’Neill allowed himself only a brief leap of joy after starting his tenure with a triumph, with his second-half reshuffle having made all the difference.
Trailing 1-0 with seven minutes to go, the Ulsterman was enduring the most awful of sporting emotions as apathy and anxiety swept their way through the second-biggest home crowd of the season.
Simon Vukcevic’s 17th-minute header had looked like dishing out a dose of humbug in Sunderland’s last home game before Christmas and there had been precious little to enthuse about before O’Neill tinkered with his troops.
He replaced Connor Wickham with Ji Dong-Won and Jack Colback with James McClean, and it was the latter who got things moving as the 22-year-old Irishman changed the shape of the game.
The Derry City signing’s debut impetus rained crosses down on Paul Robinson and it was a pair of fellow midfielders who made it tell on the scoreboard in a rousing finish.
First to profit from the crowd’s renewed enthusiasm and that of the home side was David Vaughan, whose left-foot lash on 83 minutes left the Blackburn goalkeeper motionless from 25 yards.
Honours shared would have seemed a fair outcome from a game in which Rovers played their part, but there was a tangible expectancy among the home fans as a 93rd-minute free-kick presented itself on the left corner of the box.
Step up Sebastian Larsson to usher in the honeymoon period proper, with the Swede’s sweetly-struck free-kick curling into the left-hand corner with razor-sharp precision.
Momentarily forgetting his previously understated demeanour in the technical area, O’Neill jumped for joy – thrusting both arms in the air as his Black Cats ran to the corner in unison.
Wigan’s comeback at West Brom had ensured his first game began with his players’ heads already below water, plunged into the relegation zone deep end just a point and place above their Lancashire visitors. As is the way for many on Wearside, position is all relative.
Neighbours Newcastle may only be 11 stops away on the Metro, but with the black-and-whites starting the day the same number of positions higher up the Premier League table, reducing that daylight will form a key component of the battle for hearts and minds among the natives.
At least his waistline, birthplace and parentage will not be called into question, although O’Neill admitted in his first programme notes his childhood affinity with Sunderland “affords me nothing more than a little goodwill, particularly in this results-driven business.”
Chairman Ellis Short echoed the theme, insisting: “We are aiming to become a club for whom top-10 finishes are the norm.”
The Texan added: “It was not specifically the Wigan home game which determined we would change our manager,” but that “ultimately we were left to reflect on the fact over a long period of time we have been under-performing.”
The manager’s pre-match dash on to the playing area to take the acclaim of the fans had got the juices going, but excitement soon subsided in a low-key opening.