WHAT a difference a game makes!
After all the fire and fury, the angst and anguish of the last few days at the Stadium of Light, it was a relief to see a game finally break out to distract from all the off-field drama.
A relief too, to see old safe hand’s Kevin Ball holding the fort in a time of crisis.
He may go by the new-fangled name Interim Head Coach, rather than the traditional caretaker manager description, but it is still the same Kevin Ball – radiating reliability, integrity and honesty.
His first team selection reflected those values – heavily reliant on senior professionals, those most steeped in the values of the club, with only a smattering of the highest quality summer signings.
On the night, everything worked – his game-plan, his mentality, the focus and form of his players and an overall team performance which ensured further embarrassment and humiliation were not heaped on a club which has endured so much of that already this season.
From the outside, it might have looked a relatively simple task – Premier League v League One – but that would have been to ignore the complexities of the situation with a lower league side brimful of confidence against opponents in flux.
Peterborough were superior to the MK Dons side which had given Sunderland so much trouble in the previous round.
But in the end, Sunderland achieved a relatively comfortable victory on the back of hard work and skill from a thoroughly focused home side which played the most attractive and complete 90 minutes football they’ve produced all season.
Ball made four changes to the side which lost 3-0 to West Brom in Paolo Di Canio’s last game in charge, deploying an innovative 4-4-1-1 formation.
In came Jozy Altidore, Seb Larsson, Carlos Cuellar and Lee Cattermole, out went the injured Steven Fletcher as well as Fabio Borini, Modibo Diakite and Ondrej Celustka.
In-form Peterborough arrived at the Stadium of Light occupying an automatic promotion spot in League One and fielded their strongest side.
Kgosi Ntlhe and Gabriel Zakuani were the only changes from the team which beat MK Dons at the weekend and they were only in because of suspensions.
Both teams started the game at a lively pace with the visitors producing the first shot of the game on target when Danny Swanson forced a save out of Keiren Westwood from range after only three minutes.
Sunderland replied in the fifth when Emanuele Giaccherini, playing in the hole, slipped in Altidore on the right of goal and the striker’s shot from an acute angle was saved by keeper Bobby Olejnik.
But the visitors suffered a set-back in the seventh minute when Ki was yellow-carded for a foul on Lee Tomlin and the attacker was unable to continue, being subbed in the 11th minute and replaced by Joe Newell.
By the time the first half had reached its half-way point Sunderland were well on top, earning a succession of corners and going close in the 17th minute when Craig Gardner nodded wide at the far post from Seb Larsson’s delivery from the left.
Giaccherrini then spurned two great chances to put his side ahead in as many minutes.
A clever step-over from Altidore allowed the Italian a sight of goal but he blazed over the bar.
And the next chance, in the 25th minute, was far easier – Colback crossing from the left and Giaccherini arriving late to scoop the ball over the crossbar inside the six-yard box.
Just before the half-hour a sweet pass from Altidore to the right-wing saw Johnson put in a great centre which the striker also put over.
But it was third time lucky for Giaccherini who finally broke the deadlock in the 32nd minute from an inswinging ball from Cattermole.
The ex-skipper was midway inside the United half and to the right of the goal when he drove forward a curling centre, difficult to defend, and Giaccherini pinched in to slot home with a left-footed finish on the half-volley from five yards out.
Peterborough had struggled to wrestle the game in their favour before and after the goal, being restricted to hopeful long-range efforts from Newell and Danny Swanson,
Sunderland meanwhile were threatening to tear their opponents apart with some lovely passing and neat approach work.
Only their finishing left them down, with Altidore going closest before the break when he struck the base of Olejnik’s right-hand post from 25 yards out.
Peterborough regrouped in the break and came out in much more positive fashion – Cuellar picking up a booking for a challenge on Newell within minutes of the resumption and Cattermole lucky to escape one soon after.
Colback was booked for fouling Swanson on the break in the 58th while a couple of minutes before and a couple of minutes after the caution, O’Shea and Cuellar produced superb last-ditch tackles to frustrate dangerous attacks.
And yet despite that, it was Sunderland who threatened the goal most up to the hour mark, with some classy passing and excellent movement – Adam Johnson going close with a shot narrowly wide of the far post from the right in the 53rd minute.
It was Johnson who was put in on goal in the 64th minute with a wonderfully directed ball over the top from Ki, only to be crowded out as he shaped to shoot.
Sunderland looked well in control going into the last half-hour with Cattermole, making his first start since February, proving pivotal in providing the hard-tackling presence in midfield which kept his team on top.
And it was perhaps a moment of significance, when John O’Shea was subbed just after the hour, that it was the former skipper who should take the armband.
But for all their confident play it was clear that Sunderland could have done with a second goal to put them in the comfort zone.
United striker Britt Assombalonga produced his side’s best effort on goal so far in the 66th minute when his shot from range was blocked by Westwood and gathered at the second attempt.
Johnson picked up his side’s fourth booking of the game in the 69th minute bringing down the surging Kgosi Ntlhe and from the resulting free-kick from the left, Jack Colback might easily have put through his own goal for an equaliser instead of conceding a corner.
The Black Cats though were spared a nervy end to the game when they grabbed a second goal of the night through O’Shea’s replacement, Valentin Roberge.
Once again it was a positive attacking move which saw a block divert the ball to Johnson in space on the right of the 18-yard box and he curled in the perfect inswinger which the centre-half met to glance into the far right-hand corner of Olejnik’s goal.
Peterborough continued to press forward when they could for the remainder of the game but Roberge’s goal had effectively sealed victory for the home side who might have extended their lead had a piledriver from Altidore not been blocked or Larsson had more luck with a free-kick which went straight at the Peterborough keeper.
And long before the end, Sunderland fans were able to relax and enjoy for the first time this season as chants of “Oooh, Bally, Bally” and “Bally, Bally give us a wave,” rolled around the ground.
It is only one victory of course.
And it was only League One opposition.
But it felt like the brakes had momentarily been put on the plummet into the abyss.
It felt like one small step out of the darkness which has recently engulfed the Stadium of Light.