ROY KEANE arrived at the Stadium of Light to run the rule over a number of players with ambitions to play in next summer’s World Cup, but he could well have left feeling sorry for the club where he was handed his managerial break.

The Republic of Ireland’s assistant manager, on a scouting mission ahead of a World Cup play-off with Denmark, is due back tomorrow night to watch the Black Cats’ latest attempt to end the 18-match wait for a win on home soil and he must be sad to see the extent of the decline on Wearside.

Having worked so hard after his appointment 11 years ago, along with Niall Quinn, to revive the fortunes of Sunderland, drawing in full-house crowds as he led a promotion charge, Keane’s presence to watch Bristol City’s victory provided a reminder of how things used to be.

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And, having seen in excess of 20,000 empty seats and a depressing performance from a Sunderland team edging closer to League One than the Premier League, the question is how long will it take for Sunderland to bring back the crowds and start delivering results.

On the evidence of Saturday it could be a long wait. Forget about the way Keane, backed by the finances provided by the Drumaville consortium, last led Sunderland out of the Championship, Simon Grayson’s crop of bargain buys look more likely to drop further down the Football League.

Such has been the alarming run of form, winning just one game in 14, it no longer seems certain Grayson will be around if he can’t oversee a victory or two against bottom club Bolton tomorrow and then Middlesbrough on Sunday. And the players know it.

Attacking midfielder Jonny Williams, signed in August by Grayson, said: “We want to play the right stuff and get the manager out of it, do it for him as well as ourselves really. Tuesday is now even bigger.

“We all know how big it was before the Bristol City game, it’s going to be even bigger now because we have lost this, we all know how big it is.

“There’s not one of us who doesn’t want to win for him, he has believed in us every step of the way.

“He gives us a gameplan and he doesn’t step on to the pitch, that’s us. I don’t think it’s a case of not trying. I don’t think that all. I think this is a great group of lads and I was positive before the game. In games I have been involved in I don’t think I have ever experienced being as low as on Saturday.”

Williams should not be the only one to have felt low after losing to Bristol City. Even if the Robins are pressing high up the table and climbed into the play-off places, Sunderland made it easy for them by making wrong decisions across the pitch and gifting them two goals.

Sunderland, like so often this season, did have their moments and occasionally threatened, but the bigger picture was that once again they didn’t do enough to seal the points and far too many players failed to hit top gear.

Things might have been different had referee Darren Bond handed Sunderland a first-half penalty when Eros Pisano’s raised arm clearly prevented Didier Ndong’s strike at goal from testing goalkeeper Frank Fielding.

Instead City, like so many other teams have done on Wearside, made them pay. They took the lead in the 28th minute when a Callum O’Dowda corner was allowed to float to the back of the goal where the unmarked Bobby Reid was on hand to nod inside the near post.

That put Lee Johnson’s side on track for a first win at Sunderland since 1992, when Andy Cole was one of the scorers, while it was the 11th time in 14 league matches under Grayson that they have fallen behind.

Sunderland did pull themselves back into it on the stroke of half-time when Lewis Grabban was on hand in the six-yard box to force a loose ball over the line after both Billy Jones and Duncan Watmore had seen initial efforts thwarted.

Rather than build on that after the restart, though, Sunderland actually got worse. They looked devoid of ideas, lacked tempo and made it far too easy for City to reclaim the lead with 17 minutes remaining.

Substitute Milan Djuric, a towering figure, bullied John O’Shea in the six-yard box to head in another cross from the lively O’Dowda, who will have impressed the onlooking Keane even if it did prevent Sunderland from ending their wait for a home win.

Despite a couple of efforts late on as Sunderland pressed for an equaliser, Fielding in the visitors’ goal was not put under anywhere near as much pressure as he should have been.

There was an air of dejection among the players and Grayson himself after the game, having heard the fans boo loudly and chant ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ in their direction. After such an utterly abysmal afternoon, it is hard to imagine how they can be lifted in time to face Bolton.

But Williams said: “It’s a very low time for all of us, all of our careers. It is a very testing time for us. We want to do the manager and the fans proud. We all need to group together in whatever way because Tuesday is make-or-break now. We have to win. However we do it, it doesn’t matter.

“I have played in teams that have gone up from this league, this team is as equally good as them. It’s a good squad of players here, good personalities, no egos, but I don’t know what the problem is. If we did we could sort it.

“When we do pass the ball around and dominate teams we look equally as good as anyone in the league.I saw Sheffield United win on Friday at Leeds and I thought our squad is equally as good as theirs but we are miles away in terms of performance and league position.”

What made it worse from a Sunderland perspective was that they actually went into the visit of City on the back of three draws, when they had scored goals and looked dangerous. Those positive vibes soon disappeared in front of a half-empty stadium on Saturday.

Williams said: “We are finding it hard. As soon as we go one down we find it even harder. You think it is going to turn but the luck isn’t going our way. It must have been frustrating to watch.

“You tend to go direct when you are losing. If it doesn’t happen it’s frustrating to watch. At times when we kept our heads, kept playing, we created a few openings. It was a stonewall penalty in the first half, the handball, we couldn’t believe it wasn’t given, but it’s all ifs and buts. It’s incredibly frustrating.”