THE ghost of Christmas Past came back to haunt Sunderland as former manager Steve Bruce tasted a first Boxing Day victory on his old Wearside stomping ground.
Goals from Gaston Ramirez, James Chester and Nikica Jelavic ended Hull City’s wait for a Premier League victory at the 11th attempt and left the 53-year-old full of festive cheer at the final whistle.
With good reason, too, as Hull’s triumph – their fourth in as many clashes with Sunderland under Bruce – was enough to move the Yorkshire club out of the relegation zone.
It means the Tigers will go into tomorrow’s crucial clash against bottom club Leicester City with renewed belief that 2015 can bring safety and an unprecedented third consecutive season among the elite of English football.
If, as Bruce hopes, this victory over Sunderland proves to be a landmark moment along the road towards survival then the club’s old guard will deserve much of the praise.
David Meyler, like Liam Rosenior and Stephen Quinn, has largely been jettisoned since the big money arrivals last summer but all three underlined their value to the Tigers’ cause in impressive style.
So, too, did Sone Aluko and Robbie Brady, plus the entire defence with even Curtis Davies battling back from an awful early error to produce an admirable display.
That blunder came inside the first minute, Hull’s captain managing to combine two of Christmas’s big traditions – namely, it being a time for giving and also enjoying a pantomime.
Davies filled the unwitting role of pantomime villain, making a total hash of an attempted back pass when under no pressure and then compounding that initial error by trying to shepherd the ball back to Allan McGregor.
It was never on so, as Davies dithered and anxious team-mates must have thought “he’s behind you”, Adam Johnson darted in to steal possession before dribbling round McGregor and then firing into an empty net.
Just 30 seconds had been played and, with the Tigers having kicked off, Johnson’s opener really was the ultimate in horror starts to a game of such importance for the club’s season.
For the next 15 minutes or so, Hull visibly rocked on their heels as Sunderland, sensing an opportunity to exact revenge for last season’s three defeats against the East Riding outfit, tore into the visitors.
As a tide of red and white shirts bore down on McGregor’s goal, the Scot was glad to see Liam Rosenior block a goalward shot from Seb Larsson and then John O’Shea head over after rising unchallenged at a corner.
Eventually, though, the onslaught eased and Bruce’s men gradually fought their way back into the contest.
In doing so, they had an element of good fortune – both with an equaliser that came via an assist from a goalmouth divot and a couple of poor decisions from referee Andre Marriner and his fellow officials.
Ramirez was credited with Hull’s first goal, it being the Uruguayan loanee’s shot which beat Costel Pantilimon from 20 yards.
But the Romanian goalkeeper was caught unawares when the ball took a wicked deflection on hitting the turf and then flew over his outstretched hands.
It was a lucky break for the Tigers, who then enjoyed some more long overdue good fortune during the final few minutes of the first half.
First, the officials failed to spot a clear handball by Alex Bruce as Johnson cleverly flicked the ball past the Hull defender just inside the area.
Then, after Quinn had also used his hand to block Jordi Gomez’s cross, Larsson beat McGregor to the ball in the scramble that followed only for Bruce to get back and clear just in time.
The value of those let-offs became apparent six minutes into the second half when Hull capped their first sustained period of pressure by going ahead.
Robbie Brady’s free-kick that Pantilimon tipped acrobatically over the crossbar at full stretch was the first time the Tigers were kept out. From the resulting corner, Brady then looked to have created another opening only for an inch-perfect slide tackle to halt the Irishman at the cost of another flag-kick.
This one proved the killer blow as a wonderfully-flighted delivery from the right flank allowed Chester to rise highest and power a header past Pantilimon.
After that, Hull seized control with Meyler and Quinn masterful in the centre of the pitch and Brady providing the attacking thrust to support both Aluko and Ramirez.
The Irishman’s influence grew the longer the game went on, with Santiago Vergini having to react smartly to block another of his fierce volleys. Steven Fletcher had to do the same to keep out Davies’s header before Aluko wasted two further opportunities.
A third goal was coming, however, and four minutes into stoppage Jelavic was played through and made no mistake with a low drilled effort beyond Pantilimon.
Sunderland: Pantilimon, Vergini (Buckley 84), Coates, O’Shea, Jones, Cattermole, Alvarez (Altidore 62), Larsson, Gomez (Giaccherini 62), Johnson, Fletcher. Unused substitutes: Bridcutt, Brown, Rodwell, Mannone.
Hull City: McGregor, Chester, Bruce, Davies,Rosenior, Elmohamady, Meyler, Quinn, Brady (Ince 88), Ramirez (Sagbo 78), Aluko (Jelavic 89). Unused substitutes: Hernandez, Maguire, Jakupovic, Figueroa.
Referee: A Marriner (W Midlands).