ON a night when Sunderland marked the 40th anniversary of the ‘impossible dream’, the current side threatened to serve up the nightmare scenario.
When Craig Gardner was red-carded after error-strewn Sunderland had already gone 1-0 down, Paolo Di Canio’s red and whites had become every bit as much the underdog as Bob Stokoe’s side had been in that never-to-be-forgotten 1973 FA Cup final.
But like that Sunderland side, the Italian’s team showed remarkable spirit, energy and tenacity to ensure that once again the odds were overturned.
There was some irony to the fact that Gardner saw red for an ugly challenge on Charlie Adam in the 33rd minute, just as Sunderland fans were applauding the memory of Ian Porterfield’s 32nd minute winner at Wembley – one of their greatest moments mingling with one of their worst.
But by the end of the game, Sunderland supporters were applauding again, this time for a point salvaged in the most unlikely of circumstances.
And while we have to accept that Wembley was the most romantic of wins and last night merely a scrappy draw, the importance of this Premier League point to Sunderland may well by measured in tens of millions of pounds at the end of the season.
With the relegation trapdoor looming as Gardner trudged off, Sunderland somehow got out of jail, much to the monumental relief of Di Canio – whose game plan did not work; and his players, who could have no complaints about trailing when they suddenly found themselves contemplating an hour’s play with one man down.
The head coach made two changes to the side which lost 6-1 to Aston Villa the previous week but they were crucial ones tactically.
Although Jack Colback and James McClean were brought into the side in place of the dropped Phil Bardsley and the suspended Stephane Sessegnon, they were not straight swaps.
Craig Gardner dropped to right-back to allow Colback to play in central midfield while left-winger McClean was put on the right flank to allow Adam Johnson to play behind lead striker Danny Graham.
It was an interesting selection and it might have made sense on paper but it didn’t translate to the pitch where McClean looked a fish out of water and Gardner struggled for form again.
If we learned one thing and one thing only from this game, it is that ultra-left-footed McClean cannot play on the right wing.
And if we were to be kind to Gardner, behind him, the right-back could well have been unsettled by his team-mate’s struggle - especially with Stoke’s wide-man Charlie Adam proving to be the visitors’ best player on the night.
There was a good atmosphere around the ground in the lead up to kick-off, helped by the presence of 1973 FA Cup-winning players saluting fans in the minutes beforehand.
But it was far from vintage stuff in the opening few minutes of the game itself and when the first shot came in the fifth minute, it was no surprise to see Seb Larsson shank his shot well wide.
There was a similar lack of precision about Sunderland’s defending of a corner in the ninth minute from which Stoke took the lead.
When Charlie Adam curled an inswinger into the penalty box from the right, Gardner lost Jon Walters, whose free header struck Danny Graham, and rebounded straight back to the Stoke man who fired into the roof of the net from four yards out.
Though Gardner had not covered himself in glory, the player who had to take the majority of the blame was the usually excellent Simon Mignolet who remained rooted to his goal-line when he should have been commanding his six-yard box.
Sunderland fans stayed with their team who responded with McClean’s deflected shot being tipped over the bar by Asmir Begovic. Then there was a good run from Johnson who forced the first yellow card of the match in the 12th minute when ex-Sunderland skipper Dean Whitehead pulled him back.
There was no doubt Sunderland were full of energy but it was not the right kind.
Nerves, already evident from the start, began to jangle alarmingly - two throw-ins badly misplaced, a crossfield pass from Danny Rose flying into touch six feet above James McClean’s head.
And when Alfred N’Diaye looped a lazy ball nowhere in the 20th minute, the team were in danger of turning their own passionate crowd against them.
Midway through the half, they succeeded when McClean, still flapping badly on the right wing, took aim from a ridiculous distance and duly missed the target by a good 10 yards to a cacophony of boos.
Manfully, Sunderland battled on to the half-hour mark, a mixture of mish-mash and mess, with home fans trying to lift their team with that 32nd minute salute when Gardner tried to stop Charlie Adam’s counter-attack with his studs up.
Though referee Lee Mason’s red card was hugely unpopular with Sunderland players and fans, replays showed the official had little choice.
Shell-shocked Sunderland could produce nothing of attack note on the resumption - finishing the half without forcing a single real save out of Begovic.
But at least they didn’t collapse, didn’t concede – though Stoke striker Cameron Jerome was wasteful on the stroke of half-time nodding a fine Adam cross wide in a position where he really should have hit the target.
Whitehead trod a fine line in time added on when he brought down Colback and Johnson drove the resulting free kick with great power narrowly wide.
Di Canio had his work cut out for him in the interval but succeeded in lifting his players.
“I tried to motivate them,” he revealed. “I saw a few faces that were very down but I pointed out that in the last 15 minutes of the first half we were in control.”
The pep talk seemed to work - Sunderland started the second half brightly enough to get the fans on side, then threatened to revert to type, and and then had them roaring at full throttle in the 55th minute when Johnson went on a delightful dribble before rifling a powerful shot straight at Begovic.
Stoke had a chance to put the game to bed just before the hour when a good attack down the left flank saw the ball ushered to Jerome, whose shot from 12 yards was headed out by John O’Shea when the striker should have done better.
On the touchline, Stoke boss Tony Pulis, every bit as animated as a Di Canio, turned away in disgust, knowing a great opportunity had been missed.
Suddenly the game was end to end and Sunderland might have equalised when John O’Shea saw a goalbound effort blocked on the line by Begovic, just seconds before Steve N’Zonzi’s shot at the other end of the pitch was plucked out of the air by Mignolet diving instinctively to his right.
Against that backdrop, the equaliser came in the 63rd minute – an equaliser Sunderland fans were hoping for at this stage, rather than expected.
Just like Stoke’s the goal came from a set-piece, this time a corner from the left, which Whitehead got his head too at the near post but only enough to head it on to the back post where John O’Shea was lurking four yards out.
The skipper adjusted his body a fraction in the split second he had, but it was enough to send a low shot back across goal and in
The stadium erupted with such noise as has rarely been known in the ground and all of a sudden it was game.
Sunderland were so much better tactically, technically and temperamentally in the second half, despite being reduced to 10 men.
McClean looked hugely relieved to be playing on the left again, Colback at right-back for only the second time in his career played the position like a veteran while Johnson, back on the right wing continually went past his markers and set up chances.
The 10 minutes after the goal were attritional but Mignolet made a brilliant save in the 74th minute from Dean Whitehead’s low drive through a crowded penalty – the keeper’s save, like Jerome’s misses – playing a vital part in the final result.
Ten-man Sunderland were remarkable in their application and did not go into their defensive shells in the last quarter-hour.
Indeed, they could and probably should, have won it.
The excellent Danny Rose ended a fine Sunderland move in the 80th minute with a low shot which grazed Begovic’s right-hand post with the keeper a spectator.
And Sunderland went close again a minute later when Johnson’s jinking run and cross saw the ball bounce off McClean’s shin at the far post and into the gloves of the grateful Stoke keeper.
McClean had another chance from a Johnson centre in the 87th minute but took too long to gather and the shot was charged down as the game ran out honours even.
When Porterfield scored his famous goal 40 years ago with just half-an-hour of a Wembley final gone, it never felt like being nearly enough to win the game against mighty Leeds.
In the end though, it was.
Sunderland’s point taken last night, does not feel like being nearly enough to keep them up this season.
But despite a poor game of football, maybe this point, this hard-fought, gutsily ground out point, maybe this will be the one which makes all the difference this season.