Rarely have miracles been made to look so straightforward.
When a dispirited Gus Poyet confessed that divine intervention was required to save Sunderland after they’d leaked five at Tottenham, he could barely have imagined that they would complete their mission impossible with a game to spare.
It would have been even less likely that he’d have anticipated a season of sendings-off, own goals, dressing room rebellions and countless calamities would be settled in such straightforward manner.
Forget the slight second-half wobble, this was safety with a swagger from a Sunderland side who may yet finish what was being billed as a catastrophic season in 12th place.
That would be the second best finish since the days of Peter Reid, Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips – which is not bad considering they effectively had a standing start under the disastrous Paolo Di Canio.
He had dreamed of creating a Sunderland team that fought hard, passed crisply and finished clinically. That vision has belatedly been delivered in the last month, and Poyet’s task now is to consolidate the gains of this uplifting period.
Before he sets about this task, the Sunderland manager can reflect on the greatest of escapes. Poyet punched the air joyously at the full-time whistle, soaking up the applause of a delighted home crowd after the final whistle of Sunderland’s 2-0 defeat of West Brom and he deserves it. He has brought hope amid the chaos and has now achieved the all-important target of keeping the club in the top flight.
There is work still to do, of course. It should never have got this close. And as delighted as the club are right now, Poyet will know that Sunderland’s improvement came as much through accident as it did design.
The remodelled midfield wouldn’t have happened if Lee Cattermole had been sold, Ki had stayed fit and Liam Bridcutt’s Premier League introduction hadn’t been hampered.
Two of the best players last night were Seb Larsson – outstanding again – and Jack Colback. Both are out of contract, the former might not have been playing but for injuries to others. After a campaign pock-marked by misfortune, the stars have aligned as they strode towards the finishing line.
Few of a red-and-white persuasion will care about that this morning. It will be Chelsea not Charlton next season and their Premier League place ensures Sunderland have dodged the job cuts, the tough decisions and the summer of pain that relegation would have ushered in.
For all the concerns for the future – Colback and Larsson are out-of-contract, remember – this is a time to celebrate the remarkable achievement of securing safety without the need for any last-day heroics. Having been derided as bottlers or worse, this set of players have now delivered one of the most thrilling campaigns in Sunderland’s modern history.
The home side’s nerves were eased by one of the most accomplished first halves of the Poyet era.
The Black Cats boss had counselled caution before the game, but it was apparent from the the first minute that he needn’t have reminded his players about the importance of not slipping up for 45 tension-free minutes. There has been a steeliness about Sunderland since their unfortunate defeat against Everton and against a disorganised and de-motivated West Brom they were simply too good and too hungry in a one-sided first half.
Poyet’s survival plan had unravelled in the early spring months because of an inability to put away teams tussling alongside them at the bottom. The illogical pattern of their form had scrambled Poyet’s brain for a short while, tempting him to tinker with formations and personnel to the detriment of his nose-diving side.
Last night they initially retained a formula that has paid off to a tee: four experienced defenders protected by a industrious midfield with a target man playing in front of Fabio Borini. It has become Poyet’s miracle blend in the last month.
It helps that Sunderland’s confidence has soared through the roof since smuggling points out of Stamford Bridge and the Etihad. The way they controlled and moved the ball was pleasing to the eye and their two wide players caused all sorts of problems for Albion’s hapless full-back Chris Brunt and Steven Reid.
The first arrived from wide as Marcos Alonso skimmed a cross towards the advancing Colback, who bobbled his drive over the head of Foster. It was a smart, clinical move that eased any nerves rebounding around the Stadium of Light.
If that had the stadium off its feet, the second was simply sublime. Larsson exchanged passes with Borini before chipping a deft pass into the path of the Italian, who executed a perfect volley to cap a possible late entry in Sunderland’s goal of the season competition. Sunderland’s dominance had been so absolute that Pepe Mel had to do something to disrupt it and his call to put an extra man in West Brom’s engine room caused the Black Cats problems in the second half.
Even with two goals in the bank it didn’t take much for a concerted spell of West Brom pressure to return an air of anxiety to the Stadium of Light. Mel’s reshuffled Albion looked a much tougher nut to crack and started to pass the ball with a measure of conviction too.
Victor Anichebe should have hauled the visitors back into the game but their fightback did not materialise. Sunderland, after everything,are safe.