Injecting younger blood into the central defensive ranks has been a priority at Sunderland for the last three-and-a-half years (and counting).
With veteran duo John O’Shea and Wes Brown reaching their twilight years, evident investment has been required on quality long-term replacements who could provide Sunderland with similarly good service.
It says much about Sunderland’s recruitment over recent seasons that with just one defensive injury on Saturday, Sam Allardyce turned to a double-act with a combined age of 70 for a game he had rightly described as the biggest of the campaign.
But while the heart of the back four is clearly THE area which must be boosted above all others this month, the O’Shea / Brown axis was absolutely ideal for the nerve-jangler against Villa.
In a game wrought with anxiety, errors and precious little quality – other than a wonderful equaliser from Villa midfielder Carles Gil – Sunderland’s familiar old heads at the back guided them to the finish line, when anything less than victory would have left the club finished.
Brown may have been auditioning for a role as the Tin Man afterwards as he searched for an ice bath after the exertions of two games inside four days.
And, yes, he appeared to be on the verge of missing the game entirely after feeling a twinge as he ran out the tunnel – prompting Sebastian Coates to warm-up before referee Craig Pawson even tooted his whistle for kick-off.
But Brown helped Sunderland’s cause when it dearly mattered.
There was nothing flashy from the two old Manchester United colleagues, just good, solid defending – heading, intercepting and keeping Villa targetman Rudy Gestede completely under wraps.
In a gut-wrenchingly bad opening half-hour from the hosts, when Villa were able to deliver far too many crosses into the Sunderland area, Jordan Veretout’s volley – which produced a quite magnificent save from Vito Mannone – was the only meaningful effort from Remi Garde’s side.
Brown was not even the culprit for Villa’s leveller.
He could not risk a second yellow card and if anyone should have brought down pacy Villan Adama Traore, then it was Yann M’Vila after Fabio Borini’s needless giveaway prompted a devastating counter-attack.
With Younes Kaboul out until the end of February and a distinct lack of smoke over Sunderland’s pursuit of Lamine Kone, does Allardyce now have to keep faith with Brown and O’Shea for an equally mammoth encounter at fellow strugglers Swansea next midweek?
There appears minimal chance of Brown being used at Arsenal in the FA Cup on Saturday, when Allardyce will wring the changes and potentially hand a debut to Under-21s centre-half Tom Beadling.
But Swansea on Wednesday week is a different matter.
It’s the game Allardyce will be targeting, particularly as there are less than 72 hours to recover before the trip to high-flying Spurs three days later.
Swansea are an entirely more threatening prospect than a Villa side who were even more wretched than Sunderland at both ends of the field.
While Gestede was neutered by Brown and O’Shea, he was hardly blessed by an abundance of midfield-runners looking for a knock-down or lay-off. For all the hype and evident ability, Jack Grealish produced nothing.
In the likes of Bafetimbi Gomis, Andre Ayew and Wayne Routledge, Swansea have power and pace, even if the managerless Welsh outfit find themselves loitering an uncomfortable two places above Sunderland.
Can Brown handle that?
Maybe, maybe not, but then the same can be said of Sebastian Coates who has been chronically inconsistent all season.
Having as many ‘leaders’ on the pitch as possible undoubtedly helps Sunderland at this defining time of the season too.
It’s perhaps been one of the reasons why the Black Cats have successfully avoided relegation for so long.
That was ultimately the difference against Villa.
In a game where Sunderland produced too many aimless long balls, too many cheap giveaways and too many horrible unforced errors, they prevailed because they wanted to win the basement battle more.
Lee Cattermole drove Sunderland on in the second half, despite being awful before the break, particularly when he was turned with frightening ease by Laurent Bacuna on a couple of occasions.
Adam Johnson started demanding the ball after Villa’s equaliser, when Sunderland could easily have folded under the backdraft of disappointment stemming from Gil’s sublime volley.
And with a glimmer of opportunity as Joleon Lescott backed off, Jermain Defoe showed ice-cool composure to slam the ball into a minute target inside Brad Guzan’s near-post.
The sense of responsibility even spread to Patrick van Aanholt, who was arguably Sunderland’s chief attacking threat after his confidence was boosted by a fortuitous opening goal.
In the big picture, victory over Villa won’t kid anyone about the extent of Sunderland’s issues.
They clearly need at least a couple of fresh faces in the transfer market and players who are able to hit the ground running, rather than take six months to settle.
Sunderland still require six points from the next four games too, if they are to meet Allardyce’s target of nine points from the second eight-match chunk of his tenure.
But on a day when Sunderland had to keep their survival hopes alive, they showed the character is still breathing in the dressing room.