“I SCORED the last time we won here... 1996. Not that I’ve been telling anyone,” said Sunderland masseur Craig Russell as he emerged from a buoyant away dressing room.
If Sunderland were going to pick a moment to end their Goodison Park hoodoo, there couldn’t have been a better time.
An unexpected victory on Merseyside yesterday was a Godsend.
Forget that Fulham and Crystal Palace slightly pooped the party with late wins elsewhere, Sunderland’s task at the moment is all about keeping their own points tally ticking over.
As long as Gus Poyet’s side are still in contention to beat the drop by the time the relegation candidates line up in the home straight, Sunderland will be in a strong position after being battle-hardened by the constant high-pressure encounters to remain in the Premier League.
Four points prior to the games either side of Christmas against Norwich and Everton would have been a more than acceptable return. That such a tally has arrived via a surprise route doesn’t really matter.
But ending Everton’s unbeaten home league record in the calendar year was a genuinely huge shock, particularly as Poyet was without the two centre-halves who have been at the heart of Sunderland’s improvement during his tenure.
Losing the suspended Wes Brown and shoulder injury victim John O’Shea for the trip to Merseyside seemed a hammer blow to Sunderland’s already slim chances against the Toffees.
Brown has consistently been Sunderland’s star performer over recent weeks, while O’Shea’s form has improved significantly since being reunited with his former Manchester United team-mate.
While Roberge showed signs of improvement when he was introduced after Brown’s red card at Stoke City last month, there have continued to be significant question marks over the Frenchman and his fellow Bosman arrival, Diakite.
Yesterday they began to provide a few answers.
Perhaps a couple of months out of the Premier League spotlight, with time to grasp the cultural, lingual and footballing differences with English football have benefited them both, because Roberge and Diakite suddenly looked assured figures.
Far from those pre-match predictions of being mauled at the hands of Romelu Lukaku, the pair neutered the on-loan Chelsea striker.
Poyet gave his makeshift defence a helping hand by putting five men across the middle of the park.
While Everton inevitably monopolised possession, Sunderland were happy to sit deep, keep their shape and take the sting out of the game on the brief occasions when they had the ball at their feet.
But when the centre-halves were called into action, they responded.
Diakite’s confidence was boosted by an early couple of contributions – heading Kevin Mirallas’s cross clear in the fourth minute while Lukaku was waiting and then doing well to intercept the lively Bryan Oviedo’s cross after the left-back had got in behind the Sunderland back four.
But with Poyet issuing a stream of instructions from the touchline to the two French-speaking players, the defence was able to comfortably contain Everton’s ponderous approach play, particularly after keeper Tim Howard’s sending-off.
With Lee Cattermole and particularly Ki Sung-Yueng pulling the strings, it was suddenly a question of whether Sunderland could add a second goal, rather than 10-man Everton finding an equaliser.
Had Sunderland boasted a splash more confidence, they would have unleashed a shot from their lengthy spells of possession on the edge of the area, rather than pass, pass and pass again.
But, as Everton went for broke after the break, the second half was the real test of Sunderland’s central defenders and they came through with flying colours.
Diakite was a perfect candidate for the physical tussle with Lukaku and he became more and more confident with the ball at his feet.
He was spared by Cattermole’s last-gasp sliding tackle after selling himself too easily to Lukaku down the left-hand side of the area early in the half. But it was a rare slip.
There were similarly few faults from Roberge, who grew as the game wore on.
Roberge was happy to bring the ball out of his defence (the quality of his distribution stood out even during his baptism of fire at the start of the season) and the rust began to drift away as he read Everton’s play and intercepted.
Yes, Sunderland were indebted to Vito Mannone for several stunning saves.
But the overwhelming majority of Mannone’s contributions were to keep out shots from outside the area, particularly from substitute Ross Barkley, who seemed intent on netting another long-range stunner.
Mannone has grasped his opportunity impressively since Keiren Westwood’s injury and it was telling that the buoyant sold-out away section at Goodison sang the Italian’s name throughout the second half.
Yet the only occasions on which Mannone was genuinely threatened from inside the penalty area came from set pieces – Fabio Borini giving a helping hand late on, with a stunning goal-line clearance to keep out Nikica Jelavic’s header.
The former Arsenal keeper’s efforts helped Sunderland to a third successive Premier League clean sheet.
That is no mean feat, particularly considering the quantity of goals Sunderland were shipping at the start of the season.
The building blocks are there. If Sunderland can begin to convert a higher percentage of the chances they are creating, it will make matters far easier.
But victory at Goodison was evidence that there is nothing wrong with Sunderland’s appetite, team spirit or determination to get out of this relegation scrap.
If the Black Cats can channel that into back-to-back league wins for the first time this season at Cardiff tomorrow, then the great escape really will be on.