When he was Scotland manager, Alex McLeish said he wouldn't swap Craig Gordon for any goalkeeper in the world. On Saturday, having seen the Scotland No 1 pull off a string of astonishing saves to preserve Sunderland's lead, his mood was rather different. "If I'd seen him after the game," the Birmingham manager said, "I'd have stuck a nut on him."
This was a barely comprehensible game. Darren Bent had Sunderland two up in 11 minutes, and only excellent saves from Joe Hart prevented them increasing their lead before half-time, yet it took a staggering performance from Gordon to preserve that advantage. Cameron Jerome finally beat him on the hour, but Gordon held out until Fraizer Campbell finally eased home nerves with two minutes remaining.
"We never do things easy," said the Sunderland manager Steve Bruce. "We should have been out of sight." He blamed himself for having John Mensah carry on after picking up a knock, while Bent was labouring with a calf problem by the end, but as this team have lost five leads in the final 10 minutes of games this season, the issue is surely at least as much mental.
Sunderland may now be 10 points clear of the relegation zone, but with away games at Liverpool and Aston Villa next up they are not quite out of danger yet. "The mentality at this club is that we're not going to take anything for granted," said Bruce.
Still, it looks like the main issue between now and May on Wearside will be whether Bent can force his way into Fabio Capello's squad for the World Cup. Saturday's goals took him to 20 in the League this season, the first time a Sunderland player has done that since Kevin Phillips – a City substitute here – won the European Golden Boot 10 years ago.
Bent seems resigned to not going, and said: "I don't think I can do any more than I am doing with England."
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Hutton, Turner, Mensah (Bardsley, 72), Ferdinand; Campbell, Meyler, Richardson, Malbranque (Cattermole, 80); Bent, Benjani (Henderson, 72). Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Zenden, Da Silva, Kilgallon.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Gardner, Michel (Bowyer, 72), Ferguson, Fahey (McFadden 60); Chucho (Phillips, 60), Jerome. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Larsson, Parnaby, Vignal.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
Booked: Birmingham Gardner.
Man of the match: Gordon.