“FOOTBALL eh? Bloody hell!”
Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous response to Manchester United’s amazing 1999 Champions League final victory – trailing 1-0 at full-time before two injury-time goals gave them victory – held a certain resonance at the Stadium of Light yesterday.
True, the victory on Wearside wasn’t as dramatic.
But in terms of odds-upsetting results it was up there with the very best of them.
Going into yesterday’s game, no Premier League team had scored more goals than Manchester City; no team had conceded more than Sunderland.
But there were so many more statistics pointing to the Black Cats’ pre-ordained demise – such as City’s front two, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo, having scored more goals this season between them than Sunderland’s entire team put together.
You could also have highlighted Sunderland not keeping a clean sheet all season in the league facing a rampant City which had scored a DOZEN times in their last two games.
So what happens when the most porous defence in the divisions goes up against the most prolific attack?
What happens when the irresistible force meets the very moveable object?
Football, that’s what – as Fergie himself might have pointed out.
The great thing about the game is that it has a way of throwing up the most logic-defying of results.
And yesterday’s stunning Sunderland win will live as long in the memory as any of the three other unlikely 1-0 victories over City at the Stadium of Light which preceded it.
For lightning to strike four times in a row has to be some sort of record.
But that’s what happened yesterday as Sunderland once again overcame overwhelming odds to triumph, by the same scoreline on Wearside for the fourth time in a row, against one of the richest sides on the planet.
That Sunderland should win the game was not evident from the opening few minutes.
Normally Sunderland would have been expected to go hammer and tongs at home in the hopes of unsettling City or getting an early lead before the Eastlands aristocrats extended themselves.
Instead, the home side opened up with the same patient, passing football which characterised their midweek victory over Southampton in the Capital One Cup.
The result of that was to suck the life out of the game, but it did at least prevent City from getting a sight on goal until the seventh minute, when James Milner’s rising shot from distance was palmed down by Vito Mannone.
The ex-Arsenal keeper had been preferred to Keiren Westwood as head coach Gus Poyet chose to make just two changes to the team which beat Southampton – Steven Fletcher replacing Jozy Altidore up front and Seb Larsson coming in for Craig Gardner in midfield.
Larsson was Sunderland’s best player in the opening 10 minutes and it was from his crossfield ball that Adam Johnson’s centre drifted across an 18-yard-box without a team-mate there to attack it.
And it was Larsson who put an excellent cross in from the right in the 13th minute which found the head of Fletcher for Sunderland’s first real chance, the Scot glancing his header wide of the far post.
The Swede had to be careful, though – a mistimed challenge on Javi Garcia saw him spoken to by unsighted referee Mike Dean but lucky to escape a booking at the very least.
If Larsson had Cattermole on the back of his shirt he would probably have been off.
It was against the background of this slow, steady start that the game suddenly exploded into life in the 21st minute with the opening goal.
It was a goal made in Manchester, but, unfortunately for the Blues, the wrong side of the city, as ex-United men Wes Brown and Phil Bardsley combined to put Sunderland ahead.
After some patient passing, Brown launched the ball down the left-hand channel, left-back Bardsley held off Milner on the edge of the area and then, from a narrow angle, crashed a right-foot shot through keeper Costel Pantilmon.
Inquests were held into whether or not Milner had been fouled, but the ex-Newcastle man went down too easily and Bardsley’s confident finish deserved to stand.
It might have been no flash in the pan either – Sunderland had other chances in the minutes that followed but were let down by their final ball, Johnson over-hitting or Ki imprecise.
In response, City threatened to unlock Sunderland’s defence several times, only to find centre-back Brown – making his first Premier League start since January 2012 – in outstanding form.
And when they should have levelled, in the 33rd minute, Aguero headed wide from six yards at the far post from Negredo’s fine, left-wing crosst.
Sunderland, meanwhile, were concentrating on passing the ball well and never more so than in the 40th minute when they worked the ball from defence to attack only for Johnson once more to have no joy with the final ball.
Some might have accused City of complacency and they stepped it up after the break with the removal of holding player Garcia – booked for a first-half challenge on Fletcher – and the introduction of winger Jesus Navas, who proved to be a thorn in Sunderland’s side from his first touch.
Navas put in two good crosses from the right in the opening couple of minutes of the half and, from the first, Negredo headed not far wide.
Sunderland weathered that, but almost shot themselves in the foot in the 49th minute when John O’Shea jumped in on Aguero and the Argentine showed him a clean pair of heels, surging into the area down the left and pulling the ball back for Navas, eight yards out, whose powerful shot struck Bardsley and was cleared.
Navas, though, almost made Sunderland pay when they were stretched on the counter-attack in the 55th minute, curling a lovely centre from the right just wide of Mannone’s far post.
But Sunderland created a great chance through patience two minutes later, with Jack Colback, Bardsley and Johnson combining well to set up Ki, who dipped his shoulder, beat his man and drove a vicious short a couple of yards wide.
The hour mark passed with the game in danger of becoming cat and mouse, with the Black Cats in the role of mice.
City passed the ball around the edge of the 18-yard box but could find no way through and were restricted to Milner’s shot from 25 yards which flashed harmlessly wide.
In the 65th minute, Micah Richards shot through a crowded penalty area after another spell of City frustration, but Mannone was alert to it.
And next it was Kolarov’s turn to try from range, with Sunderland defending doggedly, but he could could only produce the most wayward shot of the half.
It was left to Aguero, the league’s most accurate marksman, to show the way with a fabulous turn and shot which Mannone parried out, diving full stretch to his left.
And there were signs now that Sunderland’s relentless chasing, harrying and closing down was beginning to wear then down.
City readied Edin Dzeko and Pablo Zabaletta on the touchline to capitalise and they replaced Negredo and Richards for the final 20 minutes.
Dzeko tried a vicious dipping shot, within a minute of his arrival, which Mannone blocked well.
And Poyet knew it was time for a change himself – bringing on Gardner for Emanuele Giaccherini in the 73rd minute, with Altidore later replacing Fletcher as Sunderland settled themselves for the closing stages.
The Wearsiders defended deeply, desperately at times, in the minutes that followed and could easily have conceded in the 80th minute when Kolarov’s left-wing corner was met by Dzeko, who headed powerfully wide of the far post.
Next it was Kolarov’s chance from a spell of good pressure, a ridiculously powerful shot skimming the outside netting of Mannone’s goal.
The last 10 minutes were frantic stuff, with City spending most of it again around Sunderland’s 18-yard box, pressing and pressing for that equaliser.
Johnson was substituted in the 86th minute for Fabio Borini, who received the welcome to be expected of a derby winner, but Sunderland were now spent as an attacking force and had their eyes only on seeing out the game.
Three minutes were added on the end of the 90, in which Aguero could easily have been red-carded for a challenge on Larsson as City’s frustrations grew.
But, ultimately, the headlines were not to be about a red card for Aguero late in the game or Larsson early on – they were about football’s enduring capacity to surprise.
Sunderland’s victory was against all odds, but it was no fluke.
It was built on resilience, team spirit and no little amount of ability.
And that has to bode well for the future.
If high-flying City can be beaten with such determination, can away games to Stoke City and Aston Villa hold too many fears?