IN its own subtle way, the mild disappointment felt by home fans at the end of yesterday’s game said everything you needed to know about the journey made by Sunderland this campaign.
Mild, because in the greater scheme of things the difference between finishing 14th and 12th in the Premier League is nothing compared with the catastrophe of relegation that so many for so long had envisaged.
Disappointing, because Sunderland fans have got used to winning in recent weeks – four Premier League wins in a row going for a record-equalling fifth – and had seen no reason why Swansea should not be swept aside.
That’s a measure of how far the club has come.
The last time these two teams met, Gus Poyet’s first game in charge back in October, was one of the lowest points of the Black Cats’ season.
Sunderland suffered their biggest defeat of the campaign to date – a 4-0 defeat at the Liberty Stadium – confirming their worst EVER start to a season with seven defeats and a draw, and this, remember, is a club which had previously suffered the humiliations of 19 and 15-point relegations.
There was little hope for Sunderland back then and, incredibly, even less barely a month ago with the club seven points adrift of safety at the bottom and facing a formidable run of away fixtures.
But a Sunderland team unchanged and unbeaten in five games had guaranteed the Black Cats went into the Swansea game with not only their Premier League status guaranteed for another season but facing the realistic prospect of leapfrogging the Swans and finishing in a ridiculously high 12th spot should they win.
Poyet made two changes to his successful side and, although they did not seem pivotal at the time, they were to prove crucial to the outcome of the match, with Liam Bridcutt and Phil Bardsley coming in as straight swaps for Lee Cattermole and Marcos Alonso.
Bridcutt was to play well, unrolling his usual calm, passing game, but he lacked the snarling bite and drive of Cattermole. Bardsley was competitive but was deployed in his less-favoured left-back role and Sunderland missed the marauding athleticism of natural left-back Alonso.
Sunderland’s deficiencies were exposed just seven minutes into the game.
Shorn of Cattermole’s leadership, the home side failed to seize the initiative in the opening minutes and Swansea prospered with the first bit of quality of the game when Wayne Routledge played a ball into space behind the home side back four and Nathan Dyer was on it in an instant.
The Swans’ attacker had hung perfectly on the shoulder of Bardsley and now he sprinted beyond him in the area, cutting in from the right and dinking a delightfully judged chip over the advancing Vito Mannone and into the far corner of the net.
Swansea had made six changes and left a posse of first-team regulars on the bench, but they were the better side in an opening spell in which napping Sunderland were simply not at the races.
A goal down in seven minutes, they were two down in 13 as another well-worked move by the visitors paid fruit.
Jonjo Shelvey just beyond the halfway line played the ball to Wilfried Bony ahead of him and the striker’s pass forward to Marvin Emnes saw the former Middlesbrough man spin around John O’Shea to drive a left-foot shot beyond Mannone.
Like Dyer’s opener, the Emnes goal was one of real class and, when Shelvey fired over from range a couple of minutes later, Sunderland could easily have been 3-0 down in the space of the opening quarter of an hour.
Slowly Poyet’s men rallied – they could hardly have been much worse in that opening spell in which they simply trod water – and began to put passes together.
Jay Fulton was booked for a heavy challenge on Fabio Borini in the 19th minute, Seb Larsson and Adam Johnson both saw shots from outside the box blocked and several corners were won.
But the closest they came before the half-hour was a long-range cross from the left from Larsson which eluded everyone and smacked into keeper Gerhard Tremmel’s left-hand post and out.
Sunderland continued to enjoy the upper hand for the remainder of the half, only having to be wary of occasional counter-attacks – Dyer having a shot blocked after another pass inside a full-back; Shelvey also having an effort charged down.
Connor Wickham, for the hosts, was wide of the target from a Larsson corner. And, in the home team’s closest effort, Bardsley struck a shot from distance in the 38th minute which Tremmel finger-tipped over his crossbar.
It was a good response, but nowhere near good enough.
Sunderland needed to produce something early in the second half if they were to have a chance of getting anything out of the game and, after spending the opening few minutes camped out around Swansea’s penalty area on the resumption, they got it.
The goal that got them back into the game came from a Johnson corner from the right – Borini sneaking in at the near post to glance home a downward header which crossed the line near Tremmel’s ankles.
It was the on-loan Liverpool’s striker’s 10th goal of the season – achieving his ambition of double figures for the Black Cats.
And had Johnson been able to prosper when he cut inside from the right in a trademark run and unleashed a low shot goalwards a couple of minutes later, then the Black Cats would have been right back in the game.
As it was, Tremmel made the save and the Swans swept upfield seconds after to regain their two-goal advantage.
Emnes was the provider this time, pulling the back from the left and Bony – scorer of four goals in his previous three games – had the confidence to hold onto the ball in the area, selling dummies to Bardsley and Colback, before dragging a right-foot shot across Mannone and in off the keeper’s right-hand post.
Both sides made changes – Jonathan De Guzman coming on for Emnes, whose last action of the season was to see himself booked for loitering off the pitch; while, for Sunderland, Bardsley, who looked to have suffered a broken hand in the first half, was replaced by Ondrej Celustka.
Sunderland kept at it, Johnson had three attempts at goal – one of which was inches wide of Tremmel’s left-hand post and the keeper did particularly well to palm away a dangerous free-kick from a narrow angle on the left from Larsson.
Larsson left the pitch to be replaced by emerging youngster El-Hadji Ba, the midfielder making his league debut after two cup appearances this season.
But the crowd had warm applause for the Swede, as they had done for Bardsley previously – both men having possibly played their last games for Sunderland.
Sunderland’s last change of the day was to bring off John O’Shea and replace him with Jozy Altidore, with little under quarter of an hour remaining, and the home crowd got into party mood hoping for a goal to treasure from the non-free-scoring American..
Altidore might have delivered too in an impressive cameo – thrashing one eye-catching shot wide from distance and then being dispossessed in the penalty area as he shaped to shoot from eight yards out.
Sunderland, though, could just not find a way to get back into the game as the Swans completed the double over them for only the second time in 12 meetings.
There was a danger of flatness at the final whistle and it would have been nice for Sunderland’s season to end with a bang rather than a whimper.
But, on the back of the season just gone, no-one in the home crowd was complaining too much.
Miracles have happened this season.
No-one was being greedy.