ANDRE MARRINER’S name was removed from Sunderland’s Christmas card list many moons ago.
But it is reaching the stage now where questions have to be raised over whether he should even be on the list to take charge of a game in which Sunderland are involved.
Yes, Sunderland had to shoulder a hefty portion of the blame for a hugely dispiriting defeat, particularly after a wretched second half display which was as bad as the Black Cats have served up this season.
Yet how much of that was down to Marriner’s failure to spot two blatant handballs on the stroke of half-time?
Clearly, Sunderland’s players never mentally recovered from that perceived injustice.
This isn’t a one-off. Over the last five years, Marriner has proved to be consistently incompetent against the Black Cats – stretching back to that ludicrous decision to send off Michael Turner at Manchester City.
Marriner has dismissed Lee Cattermole twice, with Gus Poyet even not selecting him when the Brummie official was in charge at Arsenal last February for fear of the midfielder missing the League Cup final.
But he has perhaps saved his best for this season.
Steven Fletcher was unceremoniously smashed into by Southampton keeper Fraser Forster when the score was a reasonable 2-0 at St Mary’s in October. There was no penalty, no red card and we know the rest.
And neither Alex Bruce nor Stephen Quinn had their arms in a “natural” position when they blocked crosses yesterday.
Both should have been punished with penalties that may have been decisive in immediately banishing any confidence Hull had gained from a fortuitous equaliser on the bobbly Stadium of Light pitch.
The sense of injustice lingered in Sunderland’s ranks throughout the second half, Cattermole complaining mightily to Marriner at the final whistle and pointing to the sight of those penalty appeals.
Sunderland’s players simply couldn’t get over it and their response was to produce a second half performance which was just as woeful as Marriner’s.
For the second year on the spin, Hull burst the bubble from derby euphoria, in a game which was arguably as big as the one at St James’s Park.
This was the chance to take Sunderland onto the home straight in the annual safety-first campaign for Premier League survival.
Three points against Hull, to add to the triumph on Tyneside, would have seen Sunderland healthily break through the 20-point barrier and be genuinely able to cast their gaze upwards for the second half of the season.
Sunderland’s slow and steady progress under Poyet would have taken a major step.
The Black Cats couldn’t have hand-picked better opponents to face either - Hull utterly devoid of confidence after just two points and two goals from their previous eight games, and without a number of their key figures.
But through a combination of the curse of Bruce, post-derby complacency and abysmal officiating, Sunderland managed to achieve the infamous honour of being crowned Christmas turkeys.
There’s no masking how damaging this defeat could prove to be.
Hull were there for the taking, particularly after Adam Johnson took advantage of a woeful piece of defending from Tigers skipper Curtis Davies inside the opening 30 seconds.
The gaps which appeared in Hull’s rearguard in the moments that followed suggested that a cricket score could have been on offer for Sunderland.
They looked like a side heading for the Championship.
The crowd sensed it too; bating Bruce and revelling in a post-derby party atmosphere.
But Sunderland didn’t kick on and put a wounded animal out of its misery. Complacency set in and the hosts never really threatened to double their advantage or make the most of an in-the-mood Johnson.
This was the big chance for Ricky Alvarez to show why he arrived on Wearside with such a big billing and why Sunderland had agreed a provisional fee around the £8million mark with Inter Milan for the Argentine international.
But Alvarez only flattered to deceive.
Connor Wickham may have spent the bulk of this season out of position on the left flank, but he has kept defenders on their toes over the last month or so. Alvarez didn’t do that.
And while Billy Jones looked relatively sharp on his return from injury after more than two months on the sidelines, it was asking too much of the ex-West Brom man to be a significant attacking threat, particularly on his weaker side.
Had Sunderland doubled their advantage in that first 20 minutes, it would have been game, set and match.
But Bruce’s side gradually settled the ship, got themselves an equaliser and then hung on until half-time.
It only got worse for Sunderland after the break.
Sunderland’s pressing game went to pot and their ball retention was abysmal.
Rather than concentrating on getting down the sides of the visitors, where Hull had been vulnerable early doors, the Black Cats bafflingly started resorting to launching it long.
Whoever Poyet introduced from the bench, that pattern couldn’t be broken.
Hull were physically sharper, began to find space and ultimately offered a goal threat.
Sunderland didn’t even manage a shot.
Three points lifted Hull out of the relegation zone and gave Bruce a lifeline, when defeat could easily have spelled disaster for both him and the Tigers.
For Poyet, it’s almost back to square one.
A third successive victory at St James’s Park has not been the turning point it should have been.
That derby triumph should have been the platform for Sunderland to record back-to-back wins for the first time this season and head into the sanctity of mid-table, ahead of an appealing trip to Aston Villa.
But without those three points in the bag, the trip to Villa takes on an entirely different complexion again; Sunderland now facing an uphill battle to reach Poyet’s 20-point target by the halfway point of the season, albeit they are facing inconsistent opponents in Paul Lambert’s side.
Poyet has fresh legs available to him with the likes of Wickham, Jack Rodwell and Liam Bridcutt all probable starters in the West Midlands.
But defeat against Hull may just serve as a reminder in the Sunderland camp that they have far from cracked it just yet.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon 6, Vergini 5 (Buckley 6), O’Shea 6, Coates 5, Jones 6, Cattermole 6, Larsson 6, Gomez 6 (Giaccherini 5), JOHNSON 7, Alvarez 6 (Altidore 5), Fletcher 6.
HULL: McGregor 7, Chester 7, Bruce 6, Davies 6, Elmohamady 7, Rosenior 6, Meyler 7, Quinn 6, Ramirez 7 (Sagbo 6), Brady 6, Aluko 7.
Man of the Match: Adam Johnson – Best player on the pitch in the first half, but given no service whatsoever to get in behind Hull after the break.
Goals: Johnson 1, Ramírez 32, Chester 51, Jelavic 90. Booked: Larsson 15, Vergini 18, Chester 45, Gomez 48, Fletcher 52, Brady 72, Jones 73.