WHEN Gus Poyet said after the 5-1 defeat at Spurs earlier this month that his side needed a miracle, he probably didn’t have Connor Wickham in mind.
No, he definitely didn’t have Connor Wickham in mind.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man-child.
And the 21-year-old who has come of age in a Sunderland shirt after starting every game since the White Hart Lane walloping has turned his side’s season on its head in the space of a handful of games.
Almost miraculously so.
Five goals from the England Under-21 international in three games – the latest two added yesterday – have earned his side seven points from nine and his all-round game has been almost as important as his goals.
Not only has he been a free-scoring forward, he has also had nuisance value up front and held the ball up exceptionally well at times.
In short, the big man is the sort of player Sunderland have been missing all season.
Yesterday, he scored the first and last goals against Cardiff, but he was also heavily involved in the other two.
And his unabashed exuberance – untainted by the slog of a season which has been so morale-sapping for so many of his team-mates – could yet be the key to Sunderland’s survival.
The unlikely revival, though, has been a genuine team effort and it was no surprise when Gus Poyet named the same side which conquered Chelsea and came so close to toppling Manchester City – Santiago Vergini continuing his run at right-back at the expense of first-team regular Phil Bardsley, who had completed a two-match ban.
Cardiff boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made one change to the side which drew with Stoke the previous week – Don Cowie replacing Kim Bo-Kyung in the midfield – while former Sunderland striker Fraizer Campbell started on his first return to the Stadium of Light.
Rain had fallen heavily all morning making the pitch slippery and sodden for the midday kick-off, but Sunderland adapted to the conditions instantly, produce a blistering opening five minutes which got a big home crowd fully behind them.
Three corners and a free-kick rained into Cardiff’s 18-yard-box in the opening five minutes, bearing testimony to the home side’s domination, and each attack was greeted with massive roars.
But visiting keeper David Marshall did not have a real save to make until the eighth minute when Wickham clipped a ball over from the right and Seb Larsson nodded tamely at the Scot.
City, for their part, dug in and played intelligently on the break on the couple of occasions they got it.
But they were not able to utilise Campbell’s pace up front and the most they could muster in attack before the half-hour was a trio of corners put in from the right by Peter Whittingham, the most dangerous of which was volleyed wide by Cowie in the 16th minute.
Generally, and most encouragingly for the home crowd, it was one-way traffic with the midfield trio of Lee Cattermole, Jack Colback and Larsson seizing control of the game and regularly feeding the creative wide outlets of Adam Johnson and Fabio Borini.
Cardiff, though, got numbers behind the ball to frustrate the hosts and the Black Cats, as they have done all season, were struggling to make an impact against packed ranks.
Tensions on the terraces were just starting to creep up a level when the Black Cats made the all-important breakthrough in the 26th minute.
Like their opening goal against Chelsea last week, it came from a set-piece, with Larsson firing in a corner from the left and Wickham looping home an adept header at the far post.
It was bad defending from Cardiff, who allowed the ball to bounce in the box on its way through to the far post.
But it was wonderful marksmanship from Wickham, who intelligently and skilfully headed back across Marshall and into the top corner of goal – just about about the only place he could have squeezed the ball past a packed defence.
The goal released all the tension in the home crowd and Sunderland remained on top up to the break, but, apart from a Colback shot driven wide of Marshall’s left-hand post in the 35th minute, did not pose much of a goal threat.
It didn’t matter too much.
Cardiff struggled to find any penetration through Sunderland’s well-organised and motivated rear-guard – keeper Vito Mannone a virtual spectator – and there were a flurry of yellow cards as each side struggled to gain an advantage.
Undoubtedly the key moment of the game came on the stroke of half-time when Colback headed on a Mannone goal-kick and centre-half Juan Cala mis-controlled as he kept one eye out for the lurking Wickham.
The striker was on it in an instant, surging into the area while Cala tried to tug him back by his shirt. Wickham shrugged off the defender but was then obstructed by Marshall and his eventual shot was blocked on the line by a back-tracking defender.
It looked like another example of the sort of cruel luck and poor refereeing which has cost the Black Cats at times this season.
But referee Phil Dowd had actually played a blinder.
He had played the advantage for Wickham, who initially retained the goalscoring opportunity, but then called play back to punish the original offence – red-carding Cala and awarding Sunderland a penalty.
Borini, as is his style, was coolness personified on the spot, driving a low shot to Marshall’s left and leaving him little chance.
And with Cardiff having not scored more than two goals on their travels all season – only Norwich City have a worse away record – they were facing a second-half mountain no-one was expecting them to climb with only 10 men.
The Bluebirds at least made a fist of it though.
Solskjaer brought on pacey wideman Wilfried Zaha in place of Cowie and Cardiff stretched and tested the home side as best they could.
Colback tracked back 50 yards in the 48th minute to end Mats Daehli’s dangerous run with a wonderfully-timed tackle and that sort of endeavour, typified by him, Cattermole and Larsson, gradually began to drain their opponents.
Cattermole, making his 100th league appearance for the Black Cats, was to catch the eye with a couple of superb long-range passes and, like so many of his team-mates, seems to be running into form at just the right time in this series of genuinely impressive team performances.
The hour came up with Sunderland wresting control through patient passing.
It wasn’t thrilling for the crowd, but it was exactly what was needed and those few minutes provided the platform for the home side to attack again, with Johnson and Colback making dangerous runs and Borini firing wide.
Cardiff, spurred on by their desperation both in the game and in the league table, refused to lie down.
The key moment for them came in the 65th minute through the impressive Jordon Mutch, who won a free-kick on the right of goal, taken by Whittingham.
The midfielder’s rising shot deflected off the wall, forcing Mannone to readjust his dive, but the Italian showed why he was crowned Player of the Season with a smart save on his line.
A goal for the visitors then might have made it marginally more interesting, but Cardiff struggled to pose a genuine goal threat all afternoon – that effort was their first on-target shot.
Instead it was Sunderland who got the breakthrough, getting the goal which finally killed off the game in the 76th minute.
It was the most well-worked of the match and it came through substitute Emanuele Giaccherini, who had only been on the pitch for three minutes when he took advantage of good link-up play between Wickham and Borini.
Wickham did well to hold the ball up initially, but the assist and the goal was entirely an Italian job.
Giaccherini’s bold, darting run into the box from right to left was spotted by Borini, who made a perfect pass and the winger did not have to break his stride as he drove a left-foot shot through the unfortunate Marshall’s legs from 15 yards.
No team has conceded more late goals than Cardiff in a game – 22 in the last 15 minutes of a game before yesterday – so it was hardly a surprise when they conceded again at the death.
After another Giaccherini shot was blocked and another Colback effort drifted narrowly wide, Sunderland grabbed their fourth goal five minutes with their simplest finish of the afternoon – once again a corner, once again Wickham header.
But whereas the striker’s first had been a triumph of technique and vision, his second was simply brute force and confidence – Giaccherini producing an inswinging corner from the left; Wickham contemptuously holding off Kevin Theophile-Catherine as he nodded the ball home without jumping off the ground.
It was Sunderland’s first home win since Stoke were beaten in January, their biggest win since Bolton were beaten 4-0 in March 2010. And it finally got those twin monkeys off their backs of not beating teams around them at the bottom and not winning games they were expected to at home.
Also important was that it only Sunderland’s second clean sheet in their last 16 top-flight fixtures on a day when things went right at both ends of the pitch.
So much in football is about timing.
Sunderland seem to have it right now. And so does Connor Wickham.