SOUTHAMPTON appeared to be role models for the cluster of clubs financially excluded from the Premier League’s heavyweight gang.
After bouncing back from the trauma of administration and a double relegation, the Saints looked a forward-thinking, upwardly mobile organisation.
Talented youngsters were comfortably promoted from the academy into the first-team.
Investment in the transfer market was spent on quality, not quantity.
And despite the hoo-hah over Nigel Adkins’ dismissal, replacement Mauricio Pochettino had developed the side into one capable of achieving much more than scrapping for survival.
But the events of the last 48 hours have shattered the foundations which had seen Southampton rightly occupy a place in the top 10 throughout the campaign.
The resignation of chairman Nicola Cortese – a character who was never afraid to ruffle feathers – the potential exit of Pochettino and West Ham’s pursuit of Rickie Lambert, have made Southampton this week’s crisis club in the Premier League circus.
Surely it’s the perfect time for Sunderland to face the Saints then?
Well, that looked to be the case when Sunderland headed to Cardiff last month, yet the Black Cats didn’t heed the warnings of an early backlash from the Bluebirds.
It took a stunning late turnaround for Gus Poyet’s side to save face.
It will only be a benefit of the fixture list if Sunderland win tomorrow.
Yet, given Southampton are away from home, the manager remains in situ and stability has been the side’s key attribute this season, the preparations of tomorrow’s visitors will inevitably have been affected.
Pochettino’s side are not bang in form either after last week’s scrappy success against West Brom was only their second victory in 10 league games.
The loss of key summer signing Victor Wanyama to injury has inevitably affected results, with their Capital One Cup loss at the Stadium of Light in November, showing Pochettino doesn’t necessarily have strength in depth.
This is indeed a golden opportunity for Sunderland to record back-to-back league wins for the first time this season.
Psychologically, moving out of the bottom three for the first time since August would be huge, while, even more importantly, Sunderland would move a step closer to averaging a point per game.
That will have been one of Poyet’s principal targets on taking charge.
Barring any last-gasp injuries, Poyet will surely name an unchanged side to the one which triumphed so comprehensively at Fulham and the confidence of those players will have soared after such a handsome victory.
While that 4-1 win extended Sunderland’s unbeaten run on the road to five though, there remain question marks over their home form.
Against the big boys at the Stadium of Light, the Black Cats have been excellent, in both cup and league.
But when the likes of Norwich and Aston Villa came to Wearside and stockpiled men behind the ball, Poyet’s side struggled to find an answer to break them down.
It’s a pattern that Sunderland cannot afford to become a habit, with the likes of Stoke, Hull, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Cardiff still to visit the Stadium of Light this season.
The head coach will hope that a rejuvenated Adam Johnson can provide the guile needed to unlock stubborn visiting defences, and this is an acid test of the £10million winger’s credentials.
Was Johnson’s treble at Craven Cottage a one-off or can he find the consistency to make him a genuine contender for the World Cup squad?
If it’s the latter, Sunderland’s chances of emerging victorious tomorrow will improve significantly.
Another three points for the Black Cats really would shake up the relegation dogfight and provide a huge boost ahead of Wednesday’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at Old Trafford.
After such turmoil on the South Coast, there is plenty for Sunderland to prey upon.
Verdict: Home win