Sunderland 0 Birmingham City 1
Sunderland’s recovery came to a juddering halt as Clinton Morrison snatched three points for Birmingham City at the Stadium of Light.
Howard Wilkinson’s men had gone five games without defeat under their new boss, but they were undone a minute before the end of normal time by the Republic of Ireland striker just when it looked as though they might force their way in front.
It was scarcely more than the visitors deserved on an afternoon when they were the better side for much of the contest, although Kevin Phillips - with his only shot of the game 10 minutes from time - went close and City substitute Damien Johnson saw an Olivier Tebily clearance cannon off him and on to the bar with just three minutes remaining.
But Sunderland simply took too long to put Steve Bruce’s defence under any real threat until it was almost too late, and really only had themselves to blame for defeat.
Wilkinson has warned from day one that recovery might not be a pretty affair, and his words could hardly have been more resonant on a bleak afternoon on Wearside in more ways than one.
The Black Cats, who had grittily defended Liverpool into submission at Anfield last Sunday, were just as uninspiring in front of their home fans in the opening 45 minutes, although alarmingly, looked nowhere near as likely to escape with a clean sheet.
With the irrepressible Robbie Savage, aided and abetted by midfield partners Aliou Cisse, Paul Devlin and the excellent Stan Lazaridis down the left, running the show, Sunderland found themselves chasing shadows for long periods and in constant peril from livewire strike-force Morrison and Stern John.
Indeed, had it not been for the positional sense of stand-in keeper Jurgen Macho, who had visibly grown in stature during his side’s unbeaten run, Sunderland could have gone in at the break in deep trouble.
Devlin twice tested the Austrian from distance, first after being set up by Savage and John with 12 minutes gone and then again six minutes later after he and Savage had mugged Michael Gray.
Returning full-back Stephen Wright almost gifted Lazaridis the opening goal on 25 minutes when he drove his attempted clearance into the Australian and allowed him a clear run on goal, but to his credit, he got back to redeem himself with a fine block.
Uncertain at the back and untidy in midfield, the home side failed to muster a serious attempt on goal until eight minutes before the break when, after Savage had prevented Tore Andre Flo from getting in a cross, Michael Proctor fired in a low shot which skidded off the rain-soaked turf and forced a good save from Nico Vaesen.
Birmingham’s attitude as they emerged for the second-half was clearly that the points were there for the taking, and it took both Phil Babb and George McCartney to deny Morrison a clear header at goal on 54 minutes after John had played Lazaridis into space down the left.
Wilkinson knew he had to do something to pose a greater threat to the visitors, and he replaced Michael Proctor with pacy Frenchman David Bellion two minutes later, but although his lighting turn of foot was always a problem for Jeff Kenna, he did not see enough of the ball to do any real damage.
Savage’s afternoon came to a premature end on the hour when, minutes after he had been booked for a foul on Gavin McCann, he was withdrawn, much to his annoyance, to hand Darryl Powell a chance.
Macho came for and missed a 65th-minute Lazaridis free-kick and was relieved to see the ball drop wide, but after the Australian had seen two shots in quick succession deflected just wide, it was the home side which finally started to function as an attacking force as the game entered its final quarter.
They forced a series of corners which City struggled to clear, but got their chance when Powell was penalised for a foul on McCann 20 yards out.
Phillips took aim from the resulting free-kick, but although Vaesen was rooted to the spot as his shot curled towards goal, it sailed wide of the keepers left post.
After such a long period of inactivity, Vaesen found his goal under siege in the closing minutes, and he was rescued by the crossbar three minutes from time when Olivier Tebily’s clearance came back off substitute Damien Johnson and looped up on to the woodwork.
However, Morrison snatched victory at the death when he charged down Craddock’s clearance before slotting past Macho to hand his side the victory much of their play had deserved.