IT WAS not a happy return to Old Trafford for John O’Shea.
The stand-in Sunderland skipper knew that his hopes of proving a point on the first trip back to his former employers were vanquished within the opening 20 minutes last week when he presented Robin van Persie with the most inviting of opportunities.
But the irony was not lost on Martin O’Neill on Saturday that for all O’Shea may have been at fault against the league leaders, he decisively made amends in a far more pivotal game for Sunderland seven days later.
O’Shea was arguably the unsung hero against Reading almost a fortnight ago when he grasped the magnitude of the game and deprived the Royals of a sniff to ensure Sunderland registered three crucial points.
And at the weekend he was similarly immense in the damp at St Mary’s, for what was an equally pivotal game for the Black Cats.
While the lack of pace at the heart of Sunderland’s defence will remain a concern, O’Shea and Carlos Cuellar again proved that they are an effective partnership when the individual slips are banished.
With less than five seconds on the clock on Saturday, O’Shea produced a definitive signal of authority when he connected with an emphatic header to a 50-50 ball with six-goal Saints top scorer Rickie Lambert.
It immediately set the tone for Sunderland.
For a side who have been so fragile during the opening 20 minutes recently, it was a sign of intent from O’Shea and demonstrated Sunderland’s determination to avoid yet another scenario of playing catch-up.
It proved a sign of things to come from the Republic of Ireland centre-half.
In conditions which were devilishly difficult to defend in, O’Shea blocked out the swirling wind and rain to head clear anything which drifted into his range or decisively intercept the low crosses which skipped off the turf.
Cuellar did likewise, albeit he blotted his copybook with a couple of rash moments, most notably a dreadful back pass which went behind for a Southampton corner in the dying stages.
But the Spaniard more than made up for it by emulating the exploits of his central defensive partner and producing a stunning last-gasp challenge to deny Lambert a clear run on goal 10 minutes before half-time.
With Sunderland’s centre-halves in such dominant mood, Southampton tellingly mustered little.
There was a viciously dipping Gaston Ramirez effort from 25 yards which called Simon Mignolet into action. But that was his only meaningful save of the game.
There were a couple of late scrambles from the hosts, most notably when Guly Do Prado scuffed a half-volley wide form Lambert’s knock-down in stoppage time.
But, generally, there was precious little goal threat from Nigel Adkins’ side and that bodes ominously for the long scrap ahead of them.
Without the services of injured skipper Adam Lallana, Lambert never had a clear-cut opportunity, Ramirez was clever yet ineffective and both Jason Puncheon and full Premier League debutant Emmanuel Mayuka were full of running but little else.
That wasn’t just down to the contributions of Sunderland’s centre-halves though, after a genuine show of collective determination from O’Neill’s side.
With Stephane Sessegnon partnering match-winner Steven Fletcher high up the pitch in a genuine front two, Sunderland persistently pressed the Saints from the first line of defence.
Adam Johnson and particularly James McClean doggedly tracked back, while Sunderland’s will to win was epitomised in the dying stages when Fraizer Campbell dived with reckless abandon to produce a magnificent goalmouth block.
It wasn’t the only instance of a determination to snuff out any hint of a Saints goal – Sunderland scrambling back superbly just before Fletcher’s winner when Mayuka had broken the offside trap.
Neither should the contributions of both full-backs be ignored, where Danny Rose and Craig Gardner must surely continue to be O’Neill’s first-choice, at least until Phil Bardsley recovers some of the match fitness which was clearly lacking during his cameo in the last 20 minutes.
The caveat is that Sunderland must produce such defensive displays against the big boys.
In a game which the Wearsiders couldn’t afford to lose, this was a professional, classic away performance – defending solidly in a scrappy game and nicking a winning goal with the one clear-cut opportunity.
But the next three matches are a different proposition.
Putting aside the opening day at Arsenal, Sunderland have generally failed to produce such formidable foundations at the back against the Premier League’s heavyweights this season.
In the last month alone, both Chelsea and Manchester United have been gifted the easiest ride by Sunderland’s defensive clangers.
Some may argue that the reason Sunderland have performed so well at the back against the lesser lights and so poorly against the leading ones, is simply down to ability.
But ability alone does not explain the individual bloopers the Black Cats handed to Chelsea and United.
Yes, Sunderland have lifted the pressure by securing a huge three points and again showed that, when the pressure gauge is hitting the limits, O’Neill’s side do produce the goods.
But they desperately need to reproduce the concentration shown against Southampton and Reading in the next three games.
Sunderland took a significant step away from relegation fears on Saturday, but they can take a decisive one with two, three, four or more points from the next three.
Again the Black Cats proved on Saturday that they have the master-poacher at their disposal – one who is capable of dispatching the one opportunity which comes his way.
But Sunderland cannot afford to donate any more head-starts.
If they manage to avoid that scenario on Boxing Day, then they have every chance of making the festive programme a season-changing one.