Harry Redknapp's first game as Queens Park Rangers manager will at least bring a measure of encouragement even if it was a match of few highlights. They will head into December as the only club in England's four divisions still looking for a first league victory but there were flickers of improvement and, on the balance of play, they might have made it even more galling for the Sunderland fans who booed their team off the pitch.
It was a scruffy match, lacking any real tempo and not helped by the unremitting rain, but whereas Redknapp got started with an away point, Martin O'Neill must be alarmed about his team's inability to exert any sense of superiority against the Premier League's bottom side. His team, flirting heavily with the relegation places, have now won only two of their past 21 league matches going back to last season.
QPR's record is even less distinguished but they did end their six-match losing sequence on the road. It was the first time in 24 away matches they have kept a clean sheet, and Redknapp might be disappointed they did not build on a promising start. With a touch more ambition, Sunderland were vulnerable enough for Redknapp's team to give him a winning start.
The plus points for Redknapp were that his team played with structure and organisation and the kind of solidity that has rarely been seen so far this season. "I feel more optimistic than I did on Saturday," he said. "Certainly there's a lot to work on, but there are real positives. The confidence has to be a bit shot but I'll keep telling them they're good players and hopefully they will believe it. I can't pluck anyone out of thin air but I thought we looked decent. We kept Martin quiet. He wasn't jumping around too much tonight."
This is certainly a worrying time for O'Neill, who described it as a "frustrating evening" and indicated that some of his players might have been affected by the crowd's exasperation. Sunderland began the game slowly, as might be expected of a team that have had their own confidence issues, but the more worrying aspect for O'Neill was that they never really changed gear. They struggled for cohesion, lacking any form of penetration, and lost their captain, Lee Cattermole, to a knee injury after only six minutes.
The home side missed his drive but O'Neill made the point that other qualities were missing as well. It was a sterile performance from a team struggling to remember how O'Neill invigorated them when he took over almost a year ago. They fashioned one good chance just before half-time when Danny Rose and Adam Johnson combined to set up Steven Fletcher but it was a moment of rare clarity. Rob Green, brought on at half-time because Júlio César had torn a groin, saved Fletcher's header from a second-half corner, and that was pretty much it.
For that, Redknapp deserves credit. The man taking charge of his fifth Premier League club had resisted the opportunity to make wholesale changes but there were some key alternations, with José Bosingwa brought into defence and Samba Diakité and Esteban Granero added to midfield. Shaun Derry dropped to the bench and there was no place at all for Kieron Dyer and Alejandro Faurlín. The idea, Redknapp later explained, was that he wanted a stronger, more athletic midfield, with Diakité alongside Stéphane Mbia. And the ploy worked.
"They had a renewed spirit about them," O'Neill said of Redknapp's side. If anything, it was Sunderland more conspicuously lacking in self-belief. "I knew it was going to be a difficult game but we needed to play with a wee bit more confidence," O'Neill continued. "The crowd gets edgy and it's a question of character as much as anything else. The players have to play the ball they choose, not the ball the crowd chooses."
Sunderland's supporters had been provoked to the point of restlessness. Early in the second half, with Redknapp's players playing keep-ball, the crowd found their voice to express displeasure about the absence of anything resembling a tackle. Later there was more anger when the ball was returned to the goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, too many times for the spectators' liking.
QPR were more positive. They passed the ball at times with a confidence that belied their position in the league. Djibril Cissé drove an early effort wide but their best chance arrived in the 38th minute. Mignolet saved the first attempt at the feet of Jamie Mackie and when the rebound fell to Adel Taarabt his follow-up effort ricocheted off Phil Bardsley to safety.
The visitors might have won it in the final exchanges, too, only for the substitute Shaun Wright-Phillips to aim a shot straight at Mignolet. By then, however, a goal would have represented a genuine shock. As the rain teemed down, it felt like the two teams could play for a month of Sundays without finding the ingenuity that was needed.