CHRIS COLEMAN’S return to the Welsh capital ended in similar manner to his last major game there as hard reality crushed fragile ambition.

The Sunderland manager was back at the scene of some of his greatest triumphs with Wales, but also at the stadium where his hopes of taking his country to the World Cup finals had come to grief against the Republic of Ireland last October.

That 1-0 defeat eventually sent Coleman to the North-East, rather than Russia this summer as the Irish proved tough minds can subdue youthful optimism. In Wales’ case rising stars such as Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn were denied that night and three months on, Sunderland’s raw attacking fulcrum of Josh Maja went the same way.

Cardiff City were more streetwise, more ruthless and had a physical power that Coleman’s team could not cope with in a one-sided, four-goal second-half.

The difference between October’s World Cup qualifier and this Championship contest was that the former Wales manager pointed very few fingers towards his own players’ shortcomings after that devastating international defeat. After all, most had taken him to his managerial high point of the European Championships semi-final just a year before.

Coleman has no such loyalty invested in Sunderland’s under-performing squad, although it must still be something of a gamble to have delivered as many home truths to them as he did after this demoralising defeat.

For 45 minutes, Sunderland looked capable of holding Cardiff at bay, and perhaps even stealing all three points against opponents still feeling their own way to recovery following four successive Championship defeats.

There were no great alarms for Neil Warnock’s promotion hopefuls, but the neat approach work revolving around Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman suggested Sunderland might spring an opening, if the visitors stuck at it.

But the goal Sunderland conceded less than a minute after the re-start – when Callum Paterson headed in from a corner simply because he wanted it more than Sunderland’s defenders wanted to deny him – brought a lot of seething frustrations bubbling to the surface for their manager.

“It was soft - soft mentality. It’s as simple as that,” said Coleman. “There’s no toughness. Toughness is not physical toughness, it’s not about nailing someone and putting them on their backside in a challenge. It’s easy to do that.

“Toughness is mental, it’s staying strong, making good decisions and consistent decisions. You can’t do what we do. If we do, we are going to stay where we are. It’s no coincidence where we are. We are gifting goals to teams.

“You can’t do that - well you can, but then it is inevitable what is going to happen. It was painful. To be 1-0 down 45 seconds after the restart - you can’t accept that. It was a poor mistake we made and you can’t do that, not at this level, not where we are.”

Sunderland are not a team with deep residual powers of recovery at present and are more inclined to fall apart, as they did here, although there was a significant element of self-destruction.

Didier Ndong’s sending off for a lunging tackle at Cardiff’s Junior Hoilett may have been a yellow card on another day, with another referee, since he did take a piece of the ball before clattering into the Bluebirds player’s shin.

But it was not the measured response Coleman was looking for and reduced to ten men, Sunderland were picked off on the counter-attack before the hour mark.

A swift break out by Hoillett released Kenneth Zohore, giving Coleman more evidence of that vulnerability he described as the Cardiff striker shrugged off a weak challenge by Sunderland debutant Jake Clarke-Salter before rolling the ball to the impressive Joe Ralls to hammer home.

That, at least, did provoke some sort of attacking response from Sunderland and Clarke-Salter almost made amends when he flicked a free-kick against the Cardiff bar in the 64th minute.

But the visitors were unable to maintain any attacking momentum and Paterson scored a second goal when he reacted sharply to Ralls’ deflected free-kick, before substitute Anthony Pilkington turned home Yanic Wildschut’s cross in injury time.

Coleman did not attempt to deflect blame towards referee Andy Madley for his decision to send off Ndong, nor even to the Gabon international himself, who wants to leave the club and has been the subject of a rumoured £8m bid from Watford.

Instead, it was his team’s collective failings – rather than individual mistakes – he is making his priority as he bids to steer them out of the relegation zone.

“The sending off - sometimes they are given, sometimes they are not,” added Coleman. “The referee has got a decision to make and then you are on a wing and a prayer. I’ve seen them given, I’ve seen them not given.

“To be fair to him (Ndong), in the first half he covered a lot of ground and worked hard. He got sent off and was maybe unlucky. I can’t say Didier Ndong was our problem.

“We gifted the opposition a goal within 45 seconds of the second half starting, that’s where it came from, make no mistake about it. Then we were down to ten men, we were losing, and everybody thought, ‘Here we go again’.

“We’ve got 900 fans down here, they’ve been travelling since 3am, and that’s tough to lose 4-0 when you are bottom of the league. It’s a long journey home for them with nothing to show for it.”

It’s also still a long road to safety for Sunderland.