Football can be strange and brutal at times. Just ask Sheffield Wednesday.
Having remained undefeated for a dozen League 1 outings, their trip to second-placed Sunderland - themselves on an eight-game unbeaten stretch - should have been something to behold.
Instead, Darren Moore’s error-ridden side were left utterly embarrassed as Ross Stewart’s first-ever senior hat-trick put them on course for their heaviest loss since falling 5-0 at Brentford in March 2020.
It was a perfect riposte from Sunderland, who had fallen 3-0 at Hillsborough earlier in the campaign and replaced Rotherham United at the top with this victory.
However, while that Owls success over the Black Cats had been one of their best this term, this was clearly their worst and it leaves them with plenty to ponder before Sunday’s trip to Shrewsbury Town.
It was Wednesday’s first game in almost three weeks after a Covid outbreak meant fixtures against Accrington Stanley and Burton Albion were both postponed.
If this is anything to go by, the enforced rest has not been any blessing whatsoever.
Those Sheffield Wednesday fans forced to turn home after a serious accident saw the A1 closed near Leeds earlier in the day may well be glad they missed what ensued.
The Owls were 3-0 down inside just 41 minutes and fortunate not to be further behind.
Time after time Sunderland forwards - in particular Stewart - found themselves emerging free in vast areas of space, Wednesday defenders desperately hurrying back like they had just realised they had forgotten to take the turkey out of the oven.
There was no organisation at the back for Moore’s side and the hapless Chey Dunkley endured a torrid time.
Stewart gave him the slip far too easily when accelerating on to Leon Dajaku’s pass for Sunderland’s opener in the 12th minute and the defender’s woeful back pass almost saw Dajaku quickly add a second.
The next time Stewart was afforded a free run in from the left, Barry Bannan got back just in time to deny the Scottish forward with a timely tackle but the Owls captain immediately got to his feet to tell Dunkley in no uncertain terms what he thought about the increasing chaos.
Soon after, in the 29th minute, Dunkley limped off, being spared any further embarrassment, but his beleaguered team-mates fared no better.
Admittedly, Jack Hunt threatened when he cut infield to unleash a shot that stung Thorben Hoffman’s hands - Wednesday looked relatively sharp at that end of the field - but then he gave the ball away cheaply in midfield to hand Sunderland possession for their second.
Alex Pritchard charged forward, afforded far too much space by the backtracking Owls, and when he rolled the ball forward to Stewart, his team-mate finished with aplomb from the edge of the area.
Marvin Johnson nearly put into his own goal when clearing Sunderland’s next raid but it only delayed the inevitable, Tom Flanagan heading back across the goal for Callum Doyle to head in his first goal for the club.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell produced a fine save to tip over Elliot Embleton’s rasping drive just before the break and he was on hand to deny Stewart’s header and hat-trick early in the second period.
Moreover, Ciaran Brennan was fortunate to not concede a penalty after appearing to block Lynden Gooch as relentless Sunderland continued to pour forward.
Nevertheless, Stewart did claim his treble in the 58th minute after escaping his marker once more to head home and, shortly after coming on in the 70th minute, substitute Benji Kimpioka exposed yet more lax defending to add further misery on the visitors.
Peacock-Farrell was the Owls’ top performer; he denied Kimpioka a second and made countless other saves but, given the paucity of what was in front of him, he had to.
Sunderland: Hoffman; Wright, Flanagan, Doyle, Gooch; Dajaku (Alves 80), Neil (Kimpioka 70), Evans, Embleton; Pritchard (Cirkin 62), Stewart.
Sheffield Wednesday: Peacock-Farrell; Palmer, Dunkley (Brennan 29), Johnson, Hunt, Wing, Dele-Bashiru (Cobeanu 59), Bannan, Mendez-Laing, Paterson, Gregory (Adeniran 76). Substitutes unused: Wildsmith, Shodipo, Sow, Berahino
Referee: Ben Toner (Lancashire)