IF a week is a long time in politics, then four days is a lengthy enough spell in football for things to be turned on their head. On Saturday lunchtime, Sunderland were in the box seat in the battle for automatic promotion, with their fate in their own hands. By the time they headed away from Wigan Athletic’s DW Stadium yesterday evening, their hopes of finishing in the top two had been badly dented, with their finishing position dependent, in part, on the performance of others.

Saturday’s home defeat to Charlton Athletic had been damaging, but it was last night’s loss to a Wigan side that started the night in the relegation zone that felt like a potentially fatal blow to Sunderland’s hopes of overhauling either Hull City or Peterborough United, the two sides currently above them in the table. Having also watched his side lose to Wigan in his first game in charge, Lee Johnson will be sick of the sight of the Latics.

His frustration will have been directed at his players yesterday, as they established a position of dominance in the closing stages of the first half, only to toss it away with the concession of two goals from corners either side of the half-time break.

Will Keane claimed the first, hooking home from the edge of the six-yard box to cancel out Charlie Wyke’s volleyed opener, and Callum Lang was responsible for the second as he bundled home rom barely a foot in front of the goalline.

Both goals were the result of Joe Dodoo firing the ball back across goal from the back post; both owed much to some sloppy Sunderland defending, with the Black Cats passing up opportunities to clear their lines.

Bailey Wright’s return to the heart of defence did not have the desired effect – the Australian replaced Conor McLaughlin, who was injured in the warm-up, as he made his first appearance for two months – but while Sunderland’s inability to defend set-pieces was ultimately their undoing, their failure to even threaten to get back into the game after falling behind in the 58th minute was just as alarming.

The Black Cats finished with Wyke, Stewart and Aiden McGeady on the field, but their second-half performance degenerated into a series of aimless long balls and desperate crosses into the box. Whatever happens in the remainder of the season, there will be plenty more high-pressure moments for Sunderland to face. It is to be hoped they manage to retain their composure better than this.

Sunderland dominated the vast majority of the opening period, but unravelled from the moment they switched off at a set-piece three minutes before the break.

Up until then, they had been much the better team, with recalled duo Jordan Jones and Jack Diamond forcing Wigan’s defenders onto the back foot with their energy and forceful running. With Jones and Diamond filling the wide positions, McGeady was able to float around in a free role off Charlie Wyke, and the Irishman was involved in most of Sunderland’s best moves before the interval.

He delivered the eighth-minute corner that Wright glanced just wide of the target, and having picked up a short free-kick from Jones eight minutes later, drilled in a crisp low strike that Wigan goalkeeper Jamie Jones did well to turn around the post. From the resultant corner, Wright burst in front of his marker, but could only glance a headed effort wide.

Having had the upper hand for most of the opening half-hour, Sunderland needed a goal to confirm their superiority, and it arrived in a tried-and-tested manner in the 32nd minute.

Picking up the ball close to the right-hand corner of the penalty area, McGeady dropped his shoulder to create a pocket of space and whipped a superb ball across the face of the six-yard post. Wyke had eluded his marker, and was left with the relatively simple task of angling a first-time volley past Jones.

It was the Sunderland striker’s first goal in six matches – a mini-drought by his standards – and took his tally for the season to 28 in all competitions. Tellingly, the vast majority have been supplied by McGeady.

The Irishman curled a 25-yard free-kick onto the roof of the net as the Black Cats tried to build on their lead, but having been completely untroubled for the preceding 40 minutes, the visitors switched off in damaging fashion just before the break.

First, they allowed Lang to dribble his way into the area and fire in an angled low drive that Lee Burge tipped around the post. The following corner was played to the back post, and with Dion Sanderson finding himself blocked off, Dodoo was able to nod the ball back across the six-yard box. Keane held off his marker, and after swivelling goalwards, the former Manchester United trainee was able to hook home a first-time strike.

It was a really poor goal for Sunderland to concede, but having been punished once, the visitors had clearly not learned their lesson. Thirteen minutes after the break, and the Black Cats were conceding from another Wigan corner.

This time, Curtis Tilt met the initial delivery, and while the centre-half’s header spiralled up in the air, Sunderland’s defenders were unable to clear their 18-yard box. Dodoo reprised his role from the first goal as he hooked the ball across the face of goal from the back post, and with the visiting side’s players in a disorganised mess, Lang was able to bundle home from a couple of yards out.

In the space of just over a quarter-of-an-hour either side of half-time, the game had been turned completely on its head, and an understandably frustrated Lee Johnson did not waste any time in turning to his bench.

On came Callum McFadzean, Grant Leadbitter, Lynden Gooch and Stewart in a quadruple change, with Johnson changing shape and going to a back five with Gooch and McFadzean playing as wing-backs.

The aim was no doubt to get more balls into the box aimed at Wyke and Stewart, but while the latter headed over with his first touch of the ball as he rose to meet a corner, it took Sunderland’s players a while to adapt to their remodelled shape.

The game might well have been beyond them had Keane not drilled a 72nd-minute strike wide of the target after Lang released him into the right-hand side of the box, but while the game became increasingly end-to-end in the closing stages, Sunderland were unable to ask any serious questions of their opponents.

Luke O’Nien looped a tame header wide of the target from a corner, and Gooch failed to pick out a team-mate with a couple of whipped-in balls from the right.

Other than that, though, Sunderland created absolutely nothing as they slumped to their second defeat of the week. On the evidence of this performance, they are not one of the two best teams in the league.

Their challenge in their remaining seven matches is to do everything they can to disprove that. Even if they win seven out of seven, that might not be sufficient to keep them out of the play-offs, but if they are to end up in the end-of-season shootout, they need to be heading there with momentum. At the moment, that is simply not the case.