THE FIRST of Martin O’Neill’s 23 games during his four-month tenure on Wearside still holds the most resonance in explaining Sunderland’s resurgence.
Had the Black Cats failed against fellow strugglers Blackburn Rovers on that fateful Sunday, the “O’Neill Factor” would have perished before it had started.
But it was perhaps equally as pivotal that Sunderland didn’t take a backward step in their subsequent outing at White Hart Lane seven days later.
O’Neill’s side could easily have succumbed to the same 5-0 scoreline that neighbours Newcastle were later to endure in North London.
Free-flowing Champions League chasers Spurs were smarting from their first Premier League defeat in more than three months, while Sunderland were still riddled by anxiety and faced the unwelcome distraction of their skipper and striker being arrested.
Although Sunderland ultimately succumbed to Roman Pavyluchenko’s second-half strike, they were far from disgraced and garnered sufficient encouragement to take 10 points from their subsequent four Premier League outings.
The O’Neill revolution may well have continued had the Wearsiders been routinely swatted aside by three or four. But the seeds of growth needed every encouragement at that fragile point of the season, when Sunderland’s pre-season top-10 hopes almost seemed farcical.
Now the fruits of O’Neill’s labour can be seen in the reverse fixture with Harry Redknapp’s men.
Spoils-wise, Sunderland have nothing to play for, yet they can revel in testing themselves against Spurs tomorrow, safe in the knowledge that their hard work has reaped dividends.
Conversely, it is Spurs who now face the nervous anxiety of the consequences of defeat as they look to ensure the top-four challenge doesn’t end in ignominy.
Last weekend’s victory over Swansea ended a miserable five-game winless streak, with a five-point buffer now separating Redknapp’s side and Newcastle.
But the England manager-elect will be desperate to ensure that gap isn’t reduced against a Sunderland side, who theoretically have nothing to play for.
Not that O’Neill will see it like that, even if the Sunderland boss does look to use the run-in as a chance to test the mettle of those who have had little opportunity under his charge.
The likes of Connor Wickham, Ahmed Elmohamady, Ji Dong-won, Craig Gordon and David Meyler will all harbour hopes of benefiting from the fixture demands of two games inside 48 hours – Sunderland head to Everton on Monday.
But with O’Neill pledging to take each game on its merits, the likelihood is that the side tomorrow will mirror the one which reached such heights at the Etihad Stadium last weekend.
Concerns over Matt Kilgallon’s fitness would have seemed a nonsensical notion four months ago.
But with the centre-half so impressive alongside Michael Turner against Manchester City and John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Titus Bramble still sidelined, it will be a boost for O’Neill to have the defensive partnership maintained.
Elsewhere, Sunderland will continue to monitor Lee Cattermole’s niggling knee problem, although the skipper’s participation in both Easter games has to be considered doubtful.
O’Neill will be keen to have Cattermole in his line-up against Spurs though, particularly with the raft of threats from the visiting midfield.
Although concerns persist over Aaron Lennon’s hamstring problems, Redknapp will be expected to field the big guns of Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale tomorrow.
With Norwich the visitors to White Hart Lane on Monday, on paper, this is by far the toughest of Tottenham’s Easter double-header.
If the holy trio of Bale, Modric and van der Vaart do all feature, it provides a major test to a Sunderland defence who have conceded six times in the 250-odd minutes since O’Shea limped from the field against QPR.
Sunderland must be wary of Tottenham’s runners from midfield and can be expected to follow the similar pattern that O’Neill has successfully deployed against the big boys – sit deep and try to hit them on the counter-attack through Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean.
Redknapp will doubtless be wary of succumbing in that manner, as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City have all done since O’Neill took charge.
He knows this is a very different Sunderland side to the one starting out on the eventful journey back in December.