SKIPPER John O’Shea has challenged Sunderland to take the spirit of their second-half fightback against Stoke into tomorrow’s potentially decisive clash with Southampton.
The Black Cats looked to be in deep relegation trouble on Monday evening when Craig Gardner was sent off 11 minutes before the break with the Potters leading 1-0 through Jon Walters’ strike.
Had that been the final score, Sunderland would have found themselves just two points clear of the Barclays Premier League drop zone, with 18th-placed Wigan entertaining Swansea the following evening in a game which could have seen them leapfrog the Black Cats.
However, O’Shea’s 63rd-minute equaliser, the reward for a much-improved second-half display, secured a point which lifted Paolo Di Canio’s side into 15th place, and the Latics’ 3-2 home defeat 24 hours later provided a further boost.
As a result, victory over the Saints would assure their survival because of their superior goal difference, and O’Shea is hoping a repeat of that form over 90 minutes will end their fears.
He said: “It shows the players really want to stay in this league. They want the fans to get behind us, we want Sunderland in the Premier League next season.
“The effort we showed in the second half and the passion and the commitment, all the cliches in the book, we need them all again on Sunday.”
Such is the congestion in the lower half of the table that no fewer than seven clubs from 11th-placed Fulham down could still conceivably be relegated.
But FA Cup finalists Wigan, who travel to Champions League hopefuls Arsenal on Tuesday evening, know they could be all but down this weekend should results go against them.
If that is the case, O’Shea’s strike against Stoke could prove to be the most important goal of the season.
The 32-year-old Republic of Ireland international said: “We will wait and see.
“We know we still have it in our hands and there are lots of other teams as well, not just ourselves, Norwich, Southampton, Newcastle, Fulham – there’s still a lot to play for.”
The vastly-experienced O’Shea has assumed the role of captain in the absence of Lee Cattermole for much of the season, and Di Canio has been hugely impressed by his contribution on and off the pitch since he arrived at the end of March.
The Italian said: “I didn’t have any doubts about him because in a natural way, he is always smiling. In the morning, he is the first always to come out for the warm-up before the training session.
“He is at the top of the group, he always tries to encourage the others. He is always in action, always on his toes, which is important.
“When I am talking about tactical situations, sometimes you see the young players with their mouths open looking at the sky; John O’Shea always stays alive and listens so he can go into action straight away.
“It’s crucial because you can be the best manager you can, but in the dressing room if you have one, two – I don’t want to say 10 – but one, two players who deliver the same message, if the others still haven’t received that message and they are going to forget, it’s crucial.
“He is positive, intelligent, so he is the leader.”
Gardener’s misdemeanour against Stoke means he will miss the final two games of the season and the first of next through suspension.
He joins Stephane Sessegnon and the injured Cattermole and Steven Fletcher on the sidelines, while full-back Danny Rose will play the final game of his loan spell from Tottenham, who host the Black Cats next weekend.