ON paper it was the biggest away win of Martin O’Neill’s embryonic Sunderland career. On the white surface they played on instead, it was even more impressive.
So incredible has been the transformation of the dispirited, mangy Black Cats into pedigree felines that part of you thinks it must end soon. With Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle United among their next four league opponents it might, but a win which took their points tally under the Ulsterman to 22 from a possible 30 gave hope of something lasting.
If on Friday you had asked O’Neill to design football’s most difficult character test, it would still probably have been more comfortable than what faced Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium.
Twice under O’Neill they have played top-six clubs on their own patches, suffering their only defeats at Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. Stoke City may not have anywhere near the class of those expensively-assembled clubs, but in many respects theirs is the Premier League’s most difficult ground to win on.
Designed to make life uncomfortable for away teams, visiting the bleak ground is a miserable experience at the best of times. Every advantage that can be taken, will be, by a Stoke side good at what they do. Never mind the ferocious fans, even the ball-boys loathe you.
Compared to Saturday, though, most trips there are a picnic. Blue lines marked a snowbound pitch whose bumpy, narrow surface was even less conducive to the passing Stoke have eschewed under Tony Pulis, the aerial bombardment they prefer instead even harder to deal with as snow swirled into the players’ faces. With vents on the walls of the stairwells, it was snowing inside the stadium.
For Sunderland and their fans the discomfort was only just beginning. The vast majority were on the gridlocked roads by the time the stadium was evacuated. The Black Cats’ bus battled slowly through the traffic and when Manchester Airport finally reopened they could at last fly home. On the pitch, life had been made more awkward by a red card. To see an opponent sent for an early bath is more of an advantage than it used to be.
On the Premier League’s pristine playing fields, teams can quickly move the ball to exploit the space left. But with passing near impossible and the score 0-0, Robert Huth’s dismissal was an invitation for Stoke to man the barricades.
Even before the 45th-minute red card the game had been so dire that never mind being last on Match of the Day, it was in danger of being relegated to the Football League Show. Without a home win since December 11, and with fewer Premier League goals this season than anyone bar Wigan Athletic, Stoke’s primary aim became a clean sheet. During and after the game Pulis argued bitterly his side had been hard done by.
Like Huth’s tackle (thank goodness), it completely missed the point. Pulis did not think former Middlesbrough defender Huth had touched David Meyler, despite the evidence he emailed Match of the Day suggesting he was wrong.
Stoke’s manager complained that too often players exaggerate minimal or non-existent contact.
It was the right argument at the wrong time. The authorities spent last week hammering home what is and is not a red-card tackle, sending clubs DVDs to illustrate their point. Pulis does not seem to have understood.
You might find it hard to cast your mind back to a time when unemployment was rocketing, riots took place on Britain’s streets and Argentina threatened the Falkland Islands, but in the 1980s a tackle such as Huth’s might not have earned a card of any colour.
The game has changed now, for the better. Players do not actually have to break an opponent’s leg before being sent to the stands. Being reckless is enough, and Huth was. Seeing a loose ball, he launched himself at it. Realising the danger, he cocked his leg but his right knee sped through at shin height. A ten-yard skid mark in the snow proved his lack of control.
Martin Atkinson shows more red cards than any top-flight referee, and did not need to see that or wait for the players’ reaction before reaching for his pocket.
When 14 stone of German hardware hurtles towards you at speed, it can do damage whether it means to or not. David Meyler would be recovering from his third long-term injury in as many seasons had he not leapt up. It must have been the Irishman’s lucky day, because another tackle – from Ricardo Fuller – on him in the second half appeared pretty dangerous too.
Sunderland refused to be intimidated. When Stéphane Sessègnon twigged that O’Neill’s decision to spare the fit-again Frazier Campbell the conditions meant he had to be the attack’s focal point, rather than wander to his heart’s content, they looked more likely winners.
Even so, Sessègnon was not prepared stand around in freezing temperatures. He was on the left when James McClean played a one-two. The winger looked like he was going to fall head over heels, but nutmegged Ryan Shawcross and drilled past Thomas Sørensen for victory.
Few will be as forgettable, or as valuable.