Last Thursday, Sunderland’s players decided amongst themselves to head out to a Wearside restaurant for a post-training lunch.
Ordinarily, the squad re-fuel in the Academy of Light canteen after being put through their paces by Sam Allardyce and his coaching staff, yet there was a realisation that these were unique times and called for a break from routine to strengthen the sense of togetherness.
No-one was in any doubt about the magnitude of D-day at Carrow Road. For all the public sound-bites about the Norwich clash being ‘must not lose’, all the players talked about before and after training was the need to pick up three points.
As they sat around the dinner table, Sunderland’s longest-serving first-teamer Lee Cattermole reminded every player what was at stake for the entire club and how they had to take charge of their own destiny.
That focus even over-rode any nerves when Saturday morning dawned at their Norfolk hotel.
Anxiety was contagious throughout the backroom team, yet the players themselves realised the job that had to be done; their faces a picture of channelled focus as they went through their pre-match warm-up.
Tension did begin to initially drift in after kick-off in a game which was never going to be a free-flowing classic – Jan Kirchhoff, Yann M’Vila and the decidedly poor Wahbi Khazri producing a succession of bafflingly cheap giveaways.
But, as Sunderland rode the early storm and gradually subdued a boisterous Carrow Road, that togetherness and character in Allardyce’s ranks began to shine through, none more so than captain Cattermole.
The ex-Wigan man has come in for scepticism among a section of supporters over recent weeks, with question marks raised over whether he can operate in a more advanced role and if that leaves the Black Cats with insufficient goal threat.
Some had called for Seb Larsson, others for Khazri to move into a number 10 role.
Allardyce was clearly pondering the balance of the side too after a pair of blanks in successive games against West Brom and Leicester, with Sunderland experimenting with a 4-4-2 formation in training last week and coming within a whisper of lining up in that fashion at Norwich.
But, after Allardyce kept faith with the status quo, Cattermole produced one of those immense midfield displays which have epitomised the 28-year-old in dragging Sunderland out of the mire year after year.
No-one on either side covered more ground than Cattermole, as he charged around the field pressurising the nerve-ridden yellow and green shirts and nicking possession away from them.
There was more conviction around his play when he got into more advanced areas, while, defensively, he produced a series of vital interceptions with three clearances off the line after Sunderland had established a two-goal second-half advantage.
If Norwich had got back into the game then, Sunderland’s character really would have been tested, particularly after squandering so many winnable opportunities over the last two months.
Cattermole’s face creased with passion and determination, after clearing Dieumerci Mbokani’s header and then blocking the rebound, demonstrated Sunderland’s character in a game where there was no room for error.
Other than a needless yellow card, he kept his focus too.
When Patrick van Aanholt got involved in a spot of handbags with Andre Wisdom, the skipper immediately went over to the Dutchman and gave him a mouthful; telling him to concentrate on dangerman Nathan Redmond rather than worrying about petty squabbles.
But it wasn’t just Cattermole who had that mind-set of winning at all costs.
The strong personalities throughout the Sunderland line-up stood up to be counted.
Vito Mannone received some very public backing from Allardyce beforehand and the Italian goalkeeper thoroughly justified that praise; dominating his penalty area and making several smart tip-aways.
The keeper was helped by the two centre-halves in front of him though, with Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone never allowing Norwich dangerman Mbokani a genuine chance to make the most of his power and pace.
On the only two occasions when Mbokani had a sniff, he went down far too softly under the challenge of Kaboul in a fruitless bid to win a penalty and then saw an off-balance shot blocked by the full-stretch lunge of Kone.
After five games together, the Kaboul-Kone partnership is really beginning to gel and two clean sheets from the last three outings is tangible proof of that.
With the platform of that defensive resilience, Allardyce still needed his goalscorers to handle the pressure, and Fabio Borini and Jermain Defoe’s strikes came at times which really knocked the stuffing out of Norwich.
Following Defoe’s beautifully-worked 13th goal of the season – albeit Alex Neil perhaps had a point about Jan Kirchhoff’s questionable tackle on the awful Sebastien Bassong – Sunderland should have won by an even more comfortable margin.
They certainly should have killed the game off before Duncan Watmore’s 91st minute third, squandering three or four glorious opportunities on the counter-attack through a failure to pick out the right pass.
Ultimately, that proved to be inconsequential in a game where Sunderland’s sole acceptable objective was three points.
Perhaps, second-bottom Newcastle’s victory over Swansea – which gives them the chance to leapfrog the Black Cats if they beat Manchester City tomorrow night – took a few morsels of gloss off the Norwich triumph.
But if Sunderland reach Allardyce’s target of 38 points, then it’s tough to see Newcastle matching that, particularly with the Magpies’ inferior goal difference.
Sunderland’s squad now have to switch their tunnel vision from Norwich to getting eight points from the final five nerve-janglers.
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