PAOLO Di Canio saw the apparition of his departed mother Pierina in the hours before kick-off, but it was Alan Pardew who was sporting the haunted look by the end of this remarkable Tyne-Wear derby.
In exorcising the ghosts of 13 years of rank red-and-white underachievement in this fixture, Di Canio has quickly consolidated his legend on Wearside.
Despite his best efforts to transfer the glory on to his players as he orchestrated the raucous celebrations in the gods of the Leazes End, this was – without question – his day.
Thrust into the heart of enemy territory, Di Canio revelled in every single second of this gladiatorial contest.
It was pure breast-beating, knee-dirtying theatre as he spearheaded one of the great days of Sunderland’s recent Premier League history.
However, don’t let his flair for a celebration overshadow the substance behind Di Canio’s style.
Tactically he played this one perfectly, with the intent and ambition of his players speaking volumes for the confidence he has injected into this club in just over a fortnight in the hot seat.
Barring the absent Steven Fletcher and Craig Gardner, this is the same cast of underachievers which delivered such an embarrassing performance against Norwich yet they were transformed in the cauldron of St James’ Park.
It is some kind of alchemy to turn Adam Johnson from anonymity into one of the main players in a derby as lop-sided as any since Newcastle’s 5-1 win on Tyneside in October.
Stéphane Sessègnon, too, was back to being the agent provocateur we knew he could be.
He twisted and turned United’s lethargic back-line in the run-up to the crucial first goal and, in an instant, Sunderland were imbued with the belief which has been lacking from them in so many of these recent games.
Again though, it goes back to Di Canio. The Italian had set the tone for this demolition derby with his memorable declaration this was worth “2,000 games”, choosing to confront the pressure of Sunderland’s history in this fixture rather than denying or deriding it.
Two thousand matches is probably the length of his honeymoon period now he has masterminded this victory.
Afterwards he invoked the spirit of his mother, but it was about the soaring morale of his own players who dared to dream against a Newcastle team who looked woefully short of their best.
We looked for the pre-match favourites to impose themselves on the game in those opening exchanges but they did not.
Instead, it was the energised visitors who pressed, prompted and chased in packs as they denied United’s play-makers the space to inflict damage.
At the other end, Sunderland’s attacking players look reborn now Di Canio is encouraging his team to take offensive gambles again.
From the touchline he urged his defenders to push on at every opportunity, physically grabbing Johnson at one point in an effort to make him a more attacking part of the game.
It was Sessègnon, however, who was causing the lion’s share of the problems.
It appeared a marginal call from Howard Webb when the irrepressible Benin international was judged to have fouled Steven Taylor after he wriggled past the defender and into the penalty area.
It was an injustice when, a few minutes later, Taylor escaped punishment when he had a fistful of Graham’s shirt.
Sunderland had their moment when Sessègnon’s shot crept past Krul after Jonás Gutiérrez had surrendered possession cheaply on the half-way line.
Newcastle, belatedly, awoke from their slumber.
Simon Mignolet made two awesome stops to block a pair of Papiss Cissé efforts and on the stroke of half-time his acrobatic save stopped Gutiérrez from atoning for his earlier error.
United needed a response but it was not forthcoming.
Even the introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa did not prompt a revival from the home side, who might claim an injustice of their own when Cissé’s goal was incorrectly ruled out.
Buoyed, Sunderland scored two of the finest goals you’ll see in a derby. Johnson’s fantastic curling shot beat substitute Rob Elliot before David Vaughan’s searing drive added gloss to the scoreline.
For Pardew there are only uncomfortable questions to answer.
The manner of this defeat left him with nowhere to hide and he will be aware there is a reckoning awaiting him in the summer after a campaign which has soared the heights in Europe but been underscored with domestic disappointment. None have been as bitter as this, though.
Boasting a starting XIw hich looked, on paper at least, the stronger of the two – and one which Pardew said before kick-off was the best he had been able to put out this season – it was a shock they were so thoroughly outplayed by a Sunderland team missing its three best players. That has been the problem at Newcastle this season – good players playing below themselves.
Cheick Tioté, for example, who was being touted as a potential Manchester United or Chelsea target in the summer, scuffed and skewed his way through a dreadful 90 minutes. Yohan Cabaye was poor too.
No doubt when Mike Ashley, who was watching from the directors’ box, gave the green light to a lavish January spending spree he expected the threat of relegation to be extinguished by mid-April.
Instead, a Newcastle side wounded by their worst derby showing in more than a decade peer nervously at a fixture list which includes three away games in their final five fixtures.
They haven’t been too hot away from Tyneside this year.
In truth, both teams should still survive with something to spare.
Di Canio was correct, however, when he spoke of this result being a “small step” forward, whatever the celebrations in Wearside last night might have suggested.