WHEN ELLIS Short decided in the aftermath of Sunderland’s laboured draw with Norwich City that enough was enough with Martin O’Neill, the next point seemed a long way away.
Even in O’Neill’s stay of execution against Manchester United a fortnight later, there was little to suggest that a confidence-drained, stagnating side had enough in the locker to reach that hallowed territory of 40 points.
Paolo Di Canio took charge of a team who had forgotten the winning habit for almost a quarter of the season.
Emerging victorious just once, let alone three times, seemed an almighty, if not necessarily insurmountable, task.
Di Canio may yet miss out on taking Sunderland to the sanctity of the 40-point kingdom – certainly anything less than a win on Sunday will make that seem a tall order.
But a tally of seven points from five games, with an ailing side, has justified Short’s gamble on Di Canio and even if Sunderland succumb against the Saints, is still likely to be enough to secure their Premier League status, thanks to Swansea’s efforts on Tuesday night.
No, Sunderland should not be relying upon help from others to get over the finishing line.
The Black Cats, and perhaps more so their neighbours, can take little pride in that outcome this season.
But Di Canio’s rescue mission has almost succeeded and victory on Sunday would cap what has at times seemed a doomed quest to remain in the top flight.
What Wigan’s defeat has done is ease the pressure on Sunderland and provided them with a get-out-of-jail free card.
Even if Sunderland can only draw with a Saints side still involved in the relegation scrap themselves, then Wigan would have to win at the Emirates next Tuesday, just three days after the draining experience of an FA Cup final.
A draw is not such a far-fetched scenario.
Although Sunderland showed great heart in fighting back with 10 men against Stoke City on Monday night, there was still a limited goal threat from the Black Cats.
That has been a problem throughout the campaign; set pieces or individual errors have too often been Sunderland’s best hope of a breakthrough.
But without the suspended Stephane Sessegnon, it was even more noticeable against the Potters.
While the Benin forward can be mercurial or infuriating in equal measure, he always consumes the attention of defenders and at least operates in the vicinity of the central striker.
Too often, Danny Graham was surrounded by a posse of Stoke’s behemoth defenders, without another red and white in a 30-yard radius.
It will not have gone unnoticed by Di Canio.
The dilemma is what can he do about it with the desperately scant options available?
The potential return of Connor Wickham would offer a major boost.
Even if the England U21 striker is cut from the same cloth as Graham, he would still provide a helping hand in exploiting a Southampton defence that can be brittle and boasts none of the quality the side has at the other end of the pitch.
If Wickham misses out or is only fit enough for the bench though, then surely David Vaughan will be the option thrust into the starting XI.
Di Canio’s experimentation with Sunderland’s starting line-up simply didn’t work against the Potters, but the shape which performed so well with 10 men must be retained.
That means Jack Colback at right-back, James McClean on the left and Adam Johnson on the opposite flank.
Vaughan’s inclusion wouldn’t disrupt that system, it would simply mean either the Welsh international, Seb Larsson or Alfred N’Diaye pushing forward in support of Graham.
Don’t forget either, that the midfield trio of Vaughan, Larsson and N’Diaye worked so well in Sunderland’s victory at Wigan in January, albeit that time there were Johnson and Sessegnon operating out wide.
On paper, Southampton boast more of a goal threat than Sunderland, with 14-goal Rickie Lambert, along with Adam Lallana, albeit Gaston Ramirez is suspended.
But the Saints will be nervy after just two point from their last four games, when it appeared their relegation worries were all over.
And if Sunderland can find that elusive penetration in the final third, then breaking that 40-point barrier would cap what has been a remarkable turnaround under Di Canio.
Verdict: Home win