SUNDERLAND guaranteed another season’s Premier League football with this result.
And of all the teams to do it against, that it should be West Brom could hardly have been more appropriate.
It was at West Brom after all, back on September 21 when both these teams were still searching for their first win of the season, that the Black Cats lost 3-0 and Paolo Di Canio’s strut in front of shell-shocked Sunderland fans at the final whistle sealed his doom.
And it is West Brom, of course, whose biggest claim to Premier League fame was that in 2005 they engineered the greatest ever escape from relegation that the league has ever seen.
A lot of things felt as though they came full circle last night.
Both clubs have changed their managers.
But whereas the sacking of Steve Clarke, who was doing little wrong at Albion, has seen the Baggies limp unconvincingly towards the finish line under the equally unconvincing Pepe Mel, the sacking of Di Canio, who had done little right, saw Gus Poyet installed and the improvement has been little short of miraculous.
It has not been without its setbacks – even last month, the Black Cats were looking all but dead and buried, seven points adrift at the bottom with just six games remaining.
But having taken zero points from their previous 15, Poyet’s men have now taken 13 points from their last 15 to spark an astonishing escape from the bottom three in the nick of time.
There have been many reasons for that change, but one of the main ones has been continuity and, for the fifth game in a row last night, the head coach named an unchanged side.
West Brom brought former Sunderland star Stephane Sessegnon – goalscorer in that 3-0 win earlier this season – to the Stadium of Light for the first time since buying him in August and he was the obvious dangerman.
But there was encouragement for the Wearsiders with two of the visitors’ most dangerous players not featuring – Morgan Amalfitano not included in the squad and Youssouf Mulumbu listed on the bench.
The game began with the pitch sodden with the rain which had fallen in the hour before kick-off and which continued to fall throughout.
Well over 40,000 tickets had been sold for the game but, perhaps with the rain dampening the atmosphere, the decibel levels did not really rise until the eighth minute when, after a patient build-up, Fabio Borini left fly with a spectacular shot from distance which Ben Foster twisted to fingertip over his bar.
Seb Larsson’s corner in from the left could easily have produced the opening goal, but somehow it bounced all the way through the six-yard box with no one able to find a touch, but at least the home fans had found their voice.
They were soon to have much more to cheer, for Sunderland kept the pressure on and the 13th minute proved a lucky one for them, with Jack Colback opening the scoring from Marcos Alonso’s cross.
The Spaniard has rediscovered his best form in Sunderland’s winning streak and he did well to find space on the left before drilling a low ball across the six-yard box which Colback reached just before his marker to toe-poke past Foster, at his near post, from eight yards.
It was the midfielder’s third goal of the season, his first at home, having scored important away goals at Newcastle and Cardiff and it set the tone for the remainder of the half.
Poyet had looked comfortable before the goal, but confidence surged through the side after taking the lead and they played some fine football in the testing conditions.
Albion were drawn into a string of fouls to contain Sunderland moves, with Lee Cattermole playing superbly in front of the defence, closing down, winning tackles and passing well.
Connor Wickham thrashed over the bar in the 25th minute after good approach-work from his team-mates, but there was no nerviness from the home side, no sense of impatience or anxiety.
And when the second goal arrived just after the half-hour it only underlined Sunderland’s superiority.
Larsson, goal-scoring hero against Manchester United at the weekend, was having another good game and he was the architect of the second goal, carrying it upfield before dinking a scooped pass over the Albion defence.
Borini timed his run to perfection, staying onside as he ran across the back four from the left and cushioned a waist-high volley beyond Foster for his ninth goal of the season – how he would love to get into double figures this weekend!
It felt a little like game over, even at that stage, with Albion looking so listless, and Sunderland went on to completely dominate the remainder of the half.
Graham Dorrans did his best in Albion’s midfield but was unable to spark much forward momentum. And the visitors’ most dangerous moment before the break came in the 44th minute when Saido Berahino gained ground down the left and struck a shot from outside the box which Vito Mannone parried and Alonso adeptly cleared.
It was entirely Sunderland’s half though and it concluded with a tremendous tackle by Cattermole on Sessegnon which drew loud cheers from the home crowd.
The visitors made two changes at the break, Mulumbu and Craig Dawson coming on for Claudio Yacob and Steven Reid, and suddenly Albion had a sense of urgency about them.
They made a fist of it up to the hour mark and it needed some solid defending to prevent a goal which might have sparked jitters.
Albion had a great chance to get back into the game in the 55th minute when Dawson found acres of space down the right and drove a superb ball across goal which Victor Anichebe was inches away from connecting with as he slid into the six-yard box at the far post.
It was by far the Baggies’ best spell and Poyet made two changes looking to shore things up – taking off Adam Johnson and Wickham and replacing them with Liam Bridcutt and Jozy Altidore just after the hour.
A few minutes either side of the changes, Sessegnon had shots at goal which drifted wide as Albion looked to maintain their momentum.
But, in the 64th minute, Altidore had a golden chance to put the game to bed when pressure from Sunderland ended up with Colback teeing up the American perfectly, unmarked, on the right of goal, inside the six-yard box, but, incredibly, he fired wide of the open goal.
Five minutes later, there was another wonderful opening, this time Borini rolling the ball perfectly to full-back Santiago Vergini, who was sprinting into the box on the right.
But the unmarked Argentinian produced a defender’s finish – dragging a low shot wide of the far post.
It did not matter too much for Albion’s charge had faded – their threat was all but over.
For the remainder of the match, their best chance lay in long-range free-kicks but each one was either wide of the target or straight into the wall.
Mannone had only been really been tested at the end of the first half and he was only to be tested again at the end of the second when James Morrison connected sweetly with a piledriver 20 yards out, but it was straight at the Italian who stopped the ball dead.
Having sparkled in the first half, Sunderland had been made to sweat for the result in the second.
But if they had shown silk in the opening 45 minutes, they showed they had steel in the second.
Cattermole was rightly voted man-of-the-match, but all the way through the team there were absolutely excellent performances to be proud of.
For all the individual excellence witnessed in these last few games, it is team-work which has been the real key to the Black Cats’ success.
Victory not only gets Sunderland safe after a season in which they have spent only five weeks out of the relegation zone, it also gives them four Premier League victories on the bounce for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
Few who have witnessed the impressive displays of the last few weeks would bet against Sunderland making it five in a row with the final game of the season against Swansea on Sunday.