WELL, let’s face, it IS the time of year for miracles.
Sunderland’s victory over bogey side Everton flew so much in the face of the odds that it was far more than just a “coupon-buster” – it seemed almost a freak of nature.
The Black Cats have come unstuck against the Toffeemen so many times in the last couple of decades that it is a byword among Sunderland fans that their team either lose unluckily or heavily to the Blues – usually both.
When Paolo Di Canio helped inspire a victory over Everton at the Stadium of Light in April this year, it ended a run of 16 games without a victory in this fixture for Sunderland.
But at Goodison Park, Sunderland haven’t managed a league victory over Everton since 1996 and along the way there have been some right royal hammerings – 3-0, 4-0, 7-1, 5-0…
Fast forward to the present and Sunderland were looking for their first away win since April, their first away goal since August, and they were having to do it with first-choice central defensive pairing John O’Shea (injured) and Wes Brown (suspended).
Ranged against them were not only their jinx team but also the side who have been the dark horses of the Premier League this season – Everton would have completed a year undefeated at home if they could have avoided a loss against Sunderland yesterday and Southampton this weekend.
And perhaps the only thing that was almost as surprising as the fact that they won yesterday was that the away fans sold out this Boxing Day fixture.
That tells you everything you need to know about Sunderland fans – utter defiance in the face of overwhelming adversity.
The faithful were in great voice as they watched their team make as solid a start to the game as could have been expected.
Gus Poyet made four changes to the side which drew so disappointingly with Norwich pre-Christmas.
As expected, Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite replaced the suspended Brown and O’Shea – the summer signings’ only other pairing having been in September’s 3-1 defeat to Arsenal – while Steven Fletcher and Jack Colback returned to the starting line-up, with Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini dropping to the bench.
In-form Everton made only one change to the side which beat Swansea 2-1 last Sunday – match-winner Ross Barkley dropping to the bench to be replaced by Leon Osman.
In O’Shea’s absence, Lee Cattermole was restored to the captaincy for the first time since he was stripped of it by Di Canio in the summer and was to go on to prove exactly why, at the age of only 25, he has captained three Premier League clubs.
Everton kicked off but Sunderland had the first sniff of goal when a poor back pass almost allowed Fletcher in, but he did not attack the opportunity with the same urgency as keeper Tim Howard and the ball was cleared.
Fabio Borini cut across from the left to try his luck in the seventh minute from 30 yards, but the shot was high, wide and hopeful from the moment it left his boot – sadly for Sunderland, that was to be the pattern of the game in open play.
Everton left-back Bryan Oviedo replicated Borini’s move a minute later but got his effort on target, only to find Vito Mannone watching it from a long way out – that too was to be a pattern of the game: Everton testing, Mannone resisting.
A foul by Diakite on Osman allowed Kevin Mirallas a shot on goal from a free-kick out on the left, but again Mannone was alert to the danger and collected at his near post.
Mirallas then put the ball in from the left dangerously as Everton began to get up a head of steam and Diakite chopped the ball out at the near post before Gareth Barry headed the resulting corner out.
But when James McCarthy thrashed wide on the quarter-hour – a minute after Mannone had entertained the crowd with a bit of nimble footwork to lose Mirallas – Sunderland could be content with the start made,
Colback underlined that in the 16th minute when he side-footed a Borini centre at goal but, unfortunately, straight at Howard.
The game was utterly turned on its head, though, in the 23rd minute when Howard undersold Osman with a simple pass out from goal, Osman mis-controlled, and Ki dispossessed him 10 yards outside the area, zeroed in on goal and was brought down by the American keeper.
Referee Lee Probert had no choice but to send Howard off and seconds later Osman followed him off to be replaced by substitute goalkeeper Joel Robles.
The Spanish stopper’s first job turned out to be picking the ball out of the back of the net, even though the 6ft 3in keeper dived the right way, Ki’s penalty kick was driven right into the very bottom right-hand corner of’ goal.
The goal was celebrated wildly by the travelling support, but Sunderland still had 65 testing minutes to negotiate and everyone knew the home team – undefeated in their last 10 matches – would not roll over easily.
It took a couple of minutes for Sunderland to settle, but the visitors stayed strong.
And the Wearsiders could easily have doubled their lead in the 38th minute when Ondrej Celustka produced a shot from the right, after excellent passing by Sunderland, that Robles did well to block at his near post and then an even better save to deny Seb Larsson’s close-range follow-up with an outstretched right arm.
Ki and Cattermole were controlling the game now – Ki with his sublime passing, Cattermole with his continual availability – and the South Korean put Fletcher in on goal in the 41st minute only for the striker to fire wide from a narrow angle on the left.
A touch of frustration was starting to creep into Everton’s play and Barry was booked for mis-timing a tackle on Colback as Phil Bardsley broke forward.
The foul offered Larsson a decent opening, but he curled his free-kick a couple of yards over the crossbar.
Everton made a change at the break, bringing on young star Barkley for the unwell Mirallas and he was to make a real impact.
But the first attack of the second period came from Sunderland when a free-kick, for a foul on Borini on the left, saw the ball floated to the far post, headed back in, and Diakite lifting a shot over the bar from close range when he seemed certain to score.
From Sunderland’s next attack, a ball to the far post from the left saw Fletcher head down but straight at Robles – the Scotland international’s reaction typifying the agony of an out-of-form striker.
Sunderland were looking for that second “killer” goal and had two cracking early chances to get it in the second half, but coming up empty served to up pressure on them.
Everton started to come back into it though and, as they did, Sunderland dropped deeper, with the home team winning a succession of corners from which they looked threatening.
They came desperately close to an equaliser in the 56th minute when, from another corner, this time from the right, Phil Jagielka forced a goal-line save from Mannone, who then managed to smother Lukaku’s weak follow-up.
The hour approached with Pienaar and Lukaku taking pot shots from range.
Sunderland were wobbling but reached the hour mark successfully, with Celustka crossing from the right and Borini being squeezed out at the near post.
In the 63rd minute, Fletcher struck a more confident shot from the left which Robles held, with Borini lurking.
The momentum, though, remained with 10-man Everton.
Barkley had a shot from 20 yards in the 66th minute which forced another good save out of Mannone and he went close again with a powerfully driven shot which did not miss by much as the home team worked hard and effectively.
Sunderland were doing well to restrict Everton to shots from distance, with Cattermole marshalling his tired side.
Yet Everton were dangerous and Oviedo – Leighton Baines’ impressive deputy – forced a fine save out of Mannone with a fierce 73rd-minute shot.
Sunderland had a great chance five minutes later when Borini and sub Emanuele Giaccherini linked up and played in Fletcher, but the striker’s first touch was not great and his resulting shot was well wide, with only the keeper to beat.
And then it was all about whether Sunderland could keep Everton out.
Barry had a shot from range in the 80th minute which forced another save out of Mannone as the screw turned in the last 10 minutes.
In the 84th minute, sub Nikica Jelavic earned a free-kick from Roberge which was directly in front of goal and Mannone produced a fabulous save – the save of the match – to deny Barkley, who whipped his shot over the wall for what looked a goal until the Italian twisted in the air and finger-tipped the ball around his left-hand post.
There was just as much danger, though, from the corner from the right which Jelavic headed powerfully goalwards, beating Mannone, only for Borini to somehow head if over the bar on the goal-line.
Sunderland were left to face a tense denouement to the game, with the 11-man Black Cats looking more tired and nervy than their fiendishly motivated understrength opponents.
It looked as though it might be too much to ask Sunderland to hold on.
And, given the weight of history and the evidence of statistics, no-one would have been surprised if they had not.
But hold on they did, to earn a famous and a morale-boosting result as Sunderland fans made the most of the Boxing Day victory.
Whether this is the season to be jolly, we will only know in May.
But Cardiff City tomorrow and Aston Villa on New Year’s Day will offer important pointers to Sunderland supporters .
No-one could blame those indefatigable fans though from concluding that in a season where Sunderland beat Everton at Goodison Park, anything is possible.