There have been many green shoots of recovery since Gustavo Poyet took over as Sunderland’s coach but at last, after three months, the most telling one emerged last night.
Sunderland are out of the relegation zone.
For weeks now the Black Cats have been hinting they have what it takes to avoid relegation – they have, after all, proved themselves good enough to reach a Wembley final – but flattered to deceive when the crunch times have come in the league. Not any more.
Sunderland’s supporters have been singing “Things can only get better” for some time now. At last, they have something concrete to back it up.
To win at the Stadium of Light, for the first time in the Premier League since they beat Manchester City in November, made it doubly important.
Sunderland’s home has been an understandably nervous place recently, never more so than when Wes Brown headed a 90th-minute left-wing cross inches wide of his own goal, and at times the players have struggled to cope with it.
As against Kidderminster Harriers four days previously, the earliness of the Wearsiders’ opening goal only added to the anxiety. There were 17 minutes gone when Adam Johnson tapped in his sixth goal in as many games and even a characteristic moment of Stoke City indiscipline, which cost them the services of Steven N’Zonzi eight minutes into the second half did not make life any less anxious for them.
Johnson’s would be the only goal of the game but it only made the cheers which greeted the full-time whistle all the more hearty.
The job is a long way from being done but psychologically as much as anything this was a huge step forward for a team that was dead and buried under Paolo Di Canio.
So much for the Italian’s ridiculous assertion that his old team are no better off without him.
With Ki Sung-Yeung in the holding role as Stoke target Lee Cattermole picked up an unspecified and either suspiciously or unfortunately-timed injury depending on your cynicism, the Black Cats took the game to Mark Hughes men.
Fabio Borini and Jozy Altidore both looked energetic up front, though only one had the skill to go with it. When Borini burst through the middle onto a loose ball he played in Sebastian Larsson, but Asmir Begovic was able to drop left onto the Swede’s shot without too much trouble.
Phil Bardsley was obviously in a confident mood, judging by two spectacularly optimistic volleys, neither of which got close to the target.
And when Johnson pulled a cross back from the byline, Larsson blazed over.
While Begovic was hardly being overworked, it was good to see Sunderland uncowed playing in front of their own supporters. You got the sense that a goal was coming, and it soon did.
Inevitably Borini was involved and just as inevitably, given his form since the turn of the year, Johnson finished it.
The Stoke goalkeeper will not be happy with his glovework, presenting the ball straight to Johnson. The winger took a touch to take the ball wide of the Bosnian, but not so much so that he could not find an empty net.
It was the signal for Stoke to up their game, and Vito Mannone had to do likewise to keep them at bay.
The Italian made two good saves seven minutes apart when it looked like Sunderland might have had free-kicks. In only his fourth Premier League game of the season, referee Bobby Madley was on good form.
Normally when a goalkeeper has the ball knocked from his grasp a whistle is automatic, but Madley recognised John O’Shea, not Peter Crouch who he was marking, was the man to blame, allowing Crouch to shoot the loose ball. Mannone’s was a good reaction save.
He also did well when Ryan Shawcross ran unmarked from deep as Sunderland hoped for an offside flag to head goalwards. Wes Brown reacted first to mop up the loose ball from his save.
Mannone had earlier been relieved to see Adam’s shot go wide of goal as he dived for it, and in between the saves Geoff Cameron steered the ball off target when granted a free header at a corner,
It was the hosts, then, who were relieved to hear the half-time whistle.
The second period was barely underway, though, when they were given a helping hand.
As Altidore headed to the penalty area N’Zonzi pulled him by the shoulder. Had it been almost anyone but the woefully out-of-form American you would say it was a definite goalscoring opportunity, but the midfielders’s first-half foul on the striker meant a yellow card was all that was needed to send the former Blackburn Rovers man off.
Although Larsson’s free-kick went straight into the wall, N’Zonzi’s 56th-minute dismissal was the signal for Sunderland to crank up the pressure. Begovic saved from Altidore, who was clean through and Larsson’s shot from the rebound was also blocked. Johnson shot just wide from a tight angle, and when Larsson carried the ball unchallenged from the halfway line, his shot was touched behind for a corner.
The failure to put the game out of sight may not have been surprising, but it was frustrating for the 35,000 crowd – audibly so.
With 15 minutes to go Mannone saved from Peter Odemwingie after the Stoke debutant nutmegged Brown, Adam forced a low save from Mannone when he followed up his own free-kick and Shawcross’ looping header dropped onto the crossbar with seven minutes remaining.
Ki responded with a clever ball to pick out Borini, only for Marc Wilson to throw himself in the way of the shot. Brown glanced wide from the resulting corner.
His header at his own end was closer still, drawing gasps of relief as it passed fractionally the right side of Mannone’s woodwork.
Running onto substitute Craig Gardner’s pass, Jack Colback’s tipped-over shot was the game’s last significant act but it had been far from one-way traffic.