MARTIN O'Neill was able to look Sir Alex Ferguson straight in the eye last night and say his team played with complete integrity throughout yesterday's incredible match at the Stadium of Light.
And had Manchester City not somehow conjured up two goals in injury time to win the league, the Irishman would have been able to do the same thing to Roberto Mancini next time they met.
On a day that nobody involved will ever forget, O’Neill’s men performed far better that the mere bit-part players the manager said they would be.
Sunderland more than held up their end of the bargain in terms of making sure no fingers could be pointed at them from the Etihad Stadium, or anywhere else for that matter.
The Red Devils won, but not because their opponents were already on holiday. Poor in the first-half, Martin O’Neill’s men were good in the second where they more than matched the would-be champions.
They defended strongly, created a good few chances, certainly considering the occasion, but were let down by their final shot and pass – of course. United probably deserved to win as they missed a hatful of opportunities themselves, something that will be forgotten about now.
The look on their players’ faces when the incredible news of City’s third goal came though was something that won’t be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
So Sunderland fans didn’t have to put up with watching Manchester United celebrating yet another league title success on their own patch; some consolation for what has been a turgid final two months of the season.
But it was an odd, odd final afternoon of the season. As for the game itself, there was surprise inclusion for Titus Bramble, not seen since Boxing Day, who came in at the centre of Sunderland’s defence. There was no Lee Cattermole or Nicklas Bendtner in the squad, while United had all their big guns out, as you would expect.
They huffed and puffed in the opening period with a Phil Jones header from a Giggs corner, which went over when it shouldn’t have, all they had to show for their efforts.
But the men from Manchester, or rather man from Liverpool, made the breakthrough after 19 minutes.
From Sunderland’s point of view it was a poor goal to give away as Jones’s low cross evaded every defender inside the box, as they allowed Wayne Rooney to drift to the back post where he had a simple header to get his goal.
Giggs could have doubled the lead on 27 minutes when Antonio Valencia pounced on a Bramble loose pass, slipped the ball to the veteran Welshman, whose shot stung the palms of Simon Mignolet. Then, two minutes later, a Rooney free-kick grazed the top of the crossbar as United turned the screw. The home fans were too busy shouting at referee Webb to really notice. Every decision, good or bad, was met with derision. Back to the actual football and United missed again on 33 minutes, this time Ashley Young was the culprit, as he side-footed his shot wide from inside the box when he should have put his laces through the ball.
Word came through six minutes before half-time that Manchester City had taken the lead against QPR, provoking some, ahem, friendly banter between both sets of supporters. This was more livelier than the game, which had died a bit. John O’Shea limped off before half- time, he was replaced by Ahmed Elmohamady, and might now be a doubt for the European Championships, and there was still time for Valencia to shoot right at Mignolet.
The Sunderland keeper was called into action less than two minutes after the restart when he did really well to get his hand to Rooney’s close range shot. And then with the scoreboard showing 47 minutes, the away fans erupted with joy.
QPR had scored. The impossible had become possible. Two minutes later and City were 2-1 down. It then became a probability. The last hour or so was utterly surreal. Everyone was more interested in what was happening at the other side of the country.
Sunderland passed the ball well and made United’s back four work for their money. James McClean came to life and started to run at players.
He might have scored after 55 minutes when the ball dropped to him on the edge of the box, but he doesn’t feel confident about taking on his shot with his right foot and the danger passed. The home side had a penalty appeal turned down when Ashley Young was all over Fraizer Campbell inside the box and Jonny Evans blocked Phil Bardsley’s goal- bound shot.
United tried to kill the game off and Sunderland, to their eternal credit, refused to cave in.
On 58 minutes Craig Gardner somehow got his body in the way of Young’s half-volley, which was certain for the net.
And then we had a moment of goalkeeping brilliance. It came in 75 minutes when Paul Scholes saw his low shot come back off the post and rebounded into the penalty box near where Giggs was lurking.
He put his famous left foot through the ball and Mignolet, who had been on the ground as he tried to save the first effort, got back up to somehow grab the ball from underneath his own bar.
For O’Neill and his players, there is a lot to build on and a lot of ground to make up on the top teams.
Sunderland finish 13th, which, if you take into account everything that has happened and how they’ve played over the season, is about right.