In his rollercoaster ride as managerof Sunderland, Mick McCarthy never managed to hit the heights of a home win in the top flight. The two successes he enjoyed in 37 Premier League matches in charge of the Black Cats were both on opposition soil – at Middlesbrough and West Bromwich. It was a long time coming, then, but the victory the Barnsley man celebrated on Wearside yesterday could hardly have come with more satisfying timing.
After Stéphane Sessègnon had pegged back a 22nd-minute openerfrom the former Sunderland central defender Jody Craddock, headed goals in the second half by Steven Fletcher and George Elokobitook McCarthy's Wolves a vital step closer to Premier League safety. For the Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant, the watching vice-president of the Black Country club, it was not quite a "Stairway to Heaven" but his beloved boys in black and gold are up one rung in the top flight – into 16th place, ahead of Birmingham City. They still have work to do on the final day but their fate will be in their own hands when they entertain Blackburn a week today.
"We've just got to win our game," McCarthy said. "If we do that, nothing can happen to us. I always said it would go to 22 May."
With an entire XI of Sunderland first-teamers on the injured list, and Steve Bruce not so much naming a bench as a crèche of substitutes, Wolves could hardly have wished for a better opportunity to glean a tidy safety cushion heading into denouement day. Not that they started in carpe diem mode.
Nerves seemed to get the better of them as Sunderland dominated the opening quarter. With the bright young Jack Colback and the veteran Bolo Zenden holding sway in central midfield, they pushed the ball around in assured fashion and could easily have been a couple of goals to the good. Zenden cracked a 20-yard drive off the outside of the left post and Wayne Hennessey did well to parry a stinging shot on the turn from Sessègnon, the sparky lone striker in the home team.
McCarthy looked a worried man on the touchline, but then his Wolves found their attacking teeth in the 22nd minute. Stephen Hunt clipped a ball across the goalmouth from the left byline and Craddock – a Sunderland player for six years and a 40-1 shot for the opening goal – hammered home a low right-foot drive.
The confidence flushed through the visitors. They almost doubled their lead eight minutes later but Jamie O'Hara's dipping drive struck the crossbar and bounced over. But just as McCarthy's men were getting into their stride, they lost their lead.
They paid the price for failing to cut out a corner from the right by Zenden, Sessègnon pirouetting on the far side of the six-yard box and lashing home an acrobatic right-foot shot. It was a fine finish by the Benin international and it left McCarthy pacing the touchline like a former Black Cat on hot bricks. At the start of the second half he released Matt Jarvis from bench duty and the England winger gave Wolves the attacking momentum that was to carry them to victory. It was Jarvis who provided the prompt when Wolves regained the lead, in the 54th minute. His precision cross from the right was headed in at the far post by Fletcher – the Scot's sixth goal in eight matches.
McCarthy allowed himself a fleeting clenched-fist celebration. His team survived a scare in the 62nd minute when Sessègnon crashed to the ground under a challenge from Hunt. The home camp screamed for a penalty but referee Mike Jones was unconvinced.
Twelve minutes from time the issue was put beyond doubt. O'Hara pumped forward a free-kick and Elokobi stooped to head home a goal that had the Wolves fans – and their celebrated vice president – celebrating a crucial win at the Stadium of Light. "Do your players appreciate having an icon like Robert Plant roaring them on?" McCarthy was asked in the aftermath. "Let me tell you," he said, unimpressed with the inquiry, "my players can't even remember me playing."
Referee: Mike Jones
Man of the match: O'Hara