ONLY BY tea-time next Saturday can Sunderland judge whether a rescue act against Fulham will be a positive point or simply a missed opportunity.
No doubt about it, a fourth successive Premier League defeat would have been a catastrophic result before heading to a QPR side finally getting a sniff of a great escape.
Sunderland deserve credit for their doggedness and the way they gritted their teeth through periods of frustration to ensure they at least broke through the 30-point barrier with yesterday’s 2-2 draw against Fulham.
But this was a game Sunderland were understandably pinpointing as one with a great chance of victory, against a Fulham side boasting just three goals in their last six games on the road.
Should Sunderland record four – or ideally six – points from their next two outings against QPR and Norwich, then a point from the Fulham encounter after going two goals down, will be regarded as a success.
Anything less and Sunderland’s lingering fears over being sucked into the dogfight will begin to become full-blown worries.
The Black Cats could easily have come away with victory yesterday, had they enjoyed the bounce of the ball inside the final 20 minutes or Mark Halsey had possessed the mettle to award the hosts a second spot-kick.
But, ultimately, Martin O’Neill’s men left themselves with too much to do to record all three points.
They weren’t helped by Halsey, who bafflingly decided Craig Gardner’s brush on the shins warranted Ashkan Dejagah’s plunge to the turf, rather than a yellow card for diving which the official appeared to have decided on.
The spot-kick rattled Sunderland.
Defensively, O’Neill’s lost all composure and the way Fulham were able to break from Sunderland’s corner to roll the ball into an empty net was laughable.
It was crucial that the Wearsiders were able to pull a goal back so quickly, even if there was a hint of Halsey evening matters up with another debatable decision – certainly not one that was as clear-cut as Fulham sub Emmanuel Frimpong’s handball with 10 minutes to go.
And from then on, it was a matter of whether Sunderland’s pressure would finally pay off.
After Danny Graham spurned a glorious opportunity to open his account two minutes into the second half, Sunderland’s play was more hustle and bustle, rather than showing any particular control.
Other than Stephane Sessegnon, who is finally finding his feet at a crucial juncture of the campaign, Sunderland struggled for precision in their build-up, most notably in central midfield.
But, crucially, Sunderland maintained their tempo, maintained their work-rate and maintained their belief and that combination finally brought reward, albeit it came from another pivotal Simon Mignolet moment.
The introduction of James McClean, despite the booing from a section of the Stadium of Light, provided an outlet to deliver some quality into the area.
But by removing Graham, there was little for McClean to aim for – the lack of a striker among a six-man bench proving costly.
Yet still Sunderland held onto a point.
Should Aston Villa succumb against Manchester City on Monday, Sunderland’s position above the drop zone will be even stronger.
But O’Neill’s side cannot continue to rely on results elsewhere. It’s time they took a definitive step away from the bottom three thanks to their own efforts.
* For the biggest and best coverage of Sunderland AFC, don’t miss the Football Echo – out today