LIKE an ocean tanker turning in the nearby North Sea, Sunderland are moving ever so slowly in the right direction.
Whether the turnaround will be quick enough to save them in the Premier League remains to be seen, but in the cups it is full steam ahead.
Last night, Gus Poyet conjured a remarkable performance from his players in the knock-out competition which league form suggested was unlikely in the extreme, even against a Manchester United that has started the New Year stumbling to successive defeats.
And while it is only half-time in the semi-final, (and United have lost their last three semi-final first legs on the last three occasions they’ve reached the final) – Sunderland can still be hugely proud of the wonderful night they gave their fans in what has been a pretty depressing season so far.
Both sides made seven changes from their FA Cup sides at the weekend.
But the bullet points were that for Sunderland, John O’Shea was fit enough to partner Wes Brown in central defence while new signing Marcos Alonso made his debut at left-back, and for Manchester United, Wayne Rooney joined Robin van Persie in being unavailable for selection.
Former Sunderland loan stars Danny Welbeck and Johnny Evans were given warm receptions from the home fans, while the danger-man in United’s ranks appeared to be Adnan Januzaj, who had been the difference between the two sides in their league game earlier this season.
Man United fans had travelled in their numbers and despite the home fans showing signs of wallet-fatigue after so many games in such a short space of time, there was still a good atmosphere around the stadium as the game kicked off.
The fans had little in the way of encouragement in a subdued start to the game, but that would have been no bad thing for Sunderland who would have welcomed the chance to settle against the Premier League champions.
The first moment of goalmouth action came in the eighth minute when Alonso put a promising ball across the six-yard box from the left but found no team-mate there to punish it.
It was to be that lack of a cutting edge that was to characterise Sunderland’s play throughout the first half.
Seb Larsson squandered a couple of free-kicks from good positions and when Sunderland did get the ball in the final third, too often they delayed their cross until the moment had gone or they lost possession.
On only a couple of occasions was a player bold enough to go for goal, but Fabio Borini’s shot drifted wide in the 13th minute and Phil Bardsley’s lacked power in the 40th and was an easy collect for David De Gea.
United also found the going tough in terms of attack in the early stages, but Welbeck was looking to be direct, getting one snapshot on target from range in the 17th minute and drilling another wide on the stroke of the half-hour.
Sunderland looked settled, focused.
But as the game wore on, United looked to be finding their range.
Forty-year-old Ryan Giggs hit the crossbar in front of the North Stand in the 28th minute and United got the ball in the back of the net in the 37th through Januzaj, comfortably their most lively player before the break.
The Belgian wonder-kid had already gone close, with Bardsley heading clear a ball sneaking into the top corner, when he struck again – his initial shot inside the area striking Giggs ahead of him before he stroked the rebound into the back of the net.
The offside flag was raised though from the moment the ball bounced back off the veteran and replays showed Giggs was half a yard offside.
Sunderland could have been reasonably satisfied had they gone into the break with the scores level – especially with United steaming forward after the disallowed goal – but with virtually the last kick of the half, the home team grabbed a lead to the delight of home fans who had travelled to the ground in hope rather than expectation.
It came after Evans had unnecessarily fouled Fletcher in the right-hand channel, 35 yards from goal.
Larsson hoisted a diagonal ball into the box, Brown headed it back across the six-yard box from the left and Giggs put through his own net as he tried to hold off the surging Bardsley.
The home team could enjoy their half-time break with such a morale-boosting lead.
But their joy did not last long with United levelling in the 56th minute when Nemanja Vidic rose at the far post to head home Tom Cleverley’s corner from the left.
The game had slow-burned after the resumption, but it burst into life from the equaliser with Borini and Larsson trying shots at one end and Januzaj a constant menace at the other
Larsson went close with a volleyed shot from 12 yards which bounced up wickedly off the turf and forced a superb save from De Gea.
But the game changed with the arrival of Adam Johnson shortly before the hour in place of the flickering Emanuele.
He ran at United at every opportunity and shot on sight and in the 62nd minute, it was Johnson who was shoved by Tom Cleverley as he dribbled into the box down the right.
Referee Andre Marriner took a moment to decide, but then pointed to the spot and Fabio Borini held his nerve to strike a powerful shot down the middle and high into the roof of the net.
It was a wonderful moment for Sunderland fans who knew that, with half-an-hour remaining, they had a chance of avoiding defeat at the hands of the Premier League champions.
United looked to turn the screw, gradually building the pressure, patiently working to break Sunderland down while the exciting Januzaj looked to win the game on his own.
The Belgian went for goal every chance he got and went close in the 70th minute with what looked a carbon copy of the two goals he scored at the ground in October, cutting in from the left to drive a right-foot shot across the Sunderland keeper, but this time just wide of the far post.
More attempts followed, primarily from Januzaj, who carried United’s attacking threat almost entirely on his slender, young shoulders.
Welbeck weighed in with a shot, so too did Patrice Evra, but Sunderland were not to be denied and whatever the outcome of the second leg, they had earned a memorable victory on the night.