THERE were no post-derby celebrations from Dick Advocaat today – he went straight back to exploring every possible avenue to keep Sunderland in the Premier League.
Advocaat and his entire backroom team took their seats at Eppleton CW, to watch Sunderland Under-21s secure what ultimately became a nervy 3-2 win over Southampton.
With so little time available to brush up on Sunderland’s squad, Advocaat knows every opportunity counts in the survival challenge.
Likewise, for those players in Sunderland’s squad short on match fitness, there isn’t time to play their way back to match sharpness with just seven games remaining. They need to hit the ground running if they are needed.
Adam Johnson, Will Buckley, Sebastian Coates and Vito Mannone all gained valuable minutes in front of Advocaat, with the two wingers in that quartet particularly impressing.
Johnson’s class told at this level. The England international - who hasn’t started a competitive game for more than a month - breezed through the encounter, spreading the play elegantly and cutting through the Southampton defence.
Buckley, out since January with a knee problem, performed well in the first half too - interchanging dangerously with Johnson, George Honeyman and the excellent Duncan Watmore as Sunderland regularly scythed through the Southampton defence.
Sunderland duly raced into a three-goal lead by the interval - breaking the deadlock inside six minutes when Buckley played a clever reverse pass down the left-hand side of the area for Watmore to race onto.
Watmore got to the ball just ahead of Southampton keeper Paulo Gazzaniga, nicked it ahead of him and was clearly brought down by the stopper.
Tom Beadling stepped up and immaculately despatched it into the bottom right-hand corner.
Two minutes later, Sunderland doubled their advantage when Johnson picked out the forward run of left-back Tom Robson with a beautifully-flighted crossfield pass.
Robson pulled it back to Buckley whose shot was blocked, before Watmore tucked home the rebound on the volley.
Buckley made it 3-0 in the 32nd minute when he pounced on an awful back-pass from Southampton centre-half Jason McCarthy and slid it into the net first-time.
Mannone came to Sunderland’s rescue just before the hour after a slack pass out of defence from Coates went straight to Sam McQueen, who played a first-time cross into the path of Jake Hesketh.
The Southampton midfielder had plenty of space, but Mannone was off his line quickly to block at his feet.
However, Southampton pulled one back in the 65th minute when Sunderland substitute Tom McNamee produced an awful square pass to Hesketh.
From the edge of the area, Hesketh let fly with a shot that Mannone got a hand to, but couldn’t prevent looping into the net.
McNamee then repeated his mistake four minutes later - giving it straight to Ryan Seager, before Mannone spared the defender’s blushes and blocked the Southampton striker’s shot behind.
A superb stop from Gazzaniga denied Watmore a second in the 72nd minute after right-back Bevis Mugabi played the ball straight to the Sunderland striker.
Watmore made a yard for himself on the edge of the box, but his left-foot shot was brilliantly kept out by Gazzaniga at full-stretch.
Southampton were awarded a debatable penalty with 14 minutes to go when Jake Sinclair theatrically went to ground under the challenge of McNamee.
Seager stepped up and drilled the penalty down the middle of the goal, past the wrong-footed Mannone.
And yet another McNamee error almost saw Seager equalise with six minutes to go, when he got the wrong side of the Southampton striker, but Mannone parried his chipped effort behind.
SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Cartwright (McNamee 55), Robson, Coates, Beadling, Agnew, Buckley (Gooch 67), Smith, Watmore, Honeyman (Greenwood 77), Johnson. Subs not used: Purvis, Wright. Booked: Beadling (61), Greenwood (79), McNamee (90)
SOUTHAMPTON: Gazzaniga, Mugabi, Debayo, Gape, McCarthy, Wood, Gallagher, Hesketh, Seager, Sinclair (Sims 80), McQueen. Subs not used: Britt, Barnes, Cook, Olomola.