For 13 weeks, ever since their victorious visit to Blackpool on 22 January, it had all been downhill for Sunderland, save for the brief plateau of a goalless draw at Arsenal. Yesterday it was a 90-minute rollercoaster of a ride for Steve Bruce and his side on home ground.
They lost their principal strikers, Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck, to injury, had Phil Bardsley taken off on a stretcher after three minutes and found themselves a goal down against rivals in the scrap to beat the Premier League drop. But with three goals in 22 second-half minutes the Black Cats got moving in an upward direction once again.
Thanks to a gutsy display driven by their captain, Lee Cattermole, an equaliser from Gyan, a brace from Jordan Henderson and a penalty from Stéphane Sessègnon, Sunderland had their first win in 10 matches,trebling their points tally from their previous nine games. They are up five places into 10th position, the top half of the table and have 41 points, seven more than Wigan, who are back in the bottom three.
The Sunderland fans celebrated and Bruce breathed such a prolonged sigh of relief he could not bring himself to speak at the post-match press conference. "Steve's fine," Eric Black, his assistant and press room stand-in, said. "His heart rate's down to about 184."
The Sunderland manager was shaking his head in dismay when Bardsley was knocked out after an accidental clash of heads with Nedum Onuoha, the stricken full-back receiving oxygen treatment before being carried off. The January departure of Darren Bent to Aston Villa has been widely regarded as the main reason for Sunderland's nosedive in form, but they have suffered a string of misfortunes on the injury front. After 25 minutes yesterday they had another casualty, Welbeck hobbling off in a hamstrung state. Bruce sent on Steed Malbranque, switching Sessègnon from the left wing to an attacking support role alongside Gyan.
There was also a scare for Bruce on the half-hour when the ball broke to Hugo Rodallega on the right edge of Sunderland's penalty area. The big Colombian, who was signed for Wigan by Bruce, belted a right-foot drive that Simon Mignolet did well to punch over the bar.
But the Belgian goalkeeper could not do anything about the 25-yard piledriver Mohamed Diamé smacked past him seven minutes after the interval. "Brucie, Brucie, what's the score?" the Wigan fans enquired.
Three minutes later it was 1-1. Malbranque whipped in a left-footed cross from the right and Gyan beat Ali Al-Habsi with a flashing header, taking the Ghanaian's Premier League tally for the season into double figures.
Gyan was chasing his second of the afternoon when he pulled up, clutching his left hamstring. Cue the stretcher again and the arrival of Sulley Muntari. Bruce was left with a diminutive front two of Malbranque and Sessègnon. The omens did not look great. But with 67 minutes on the clock, Muntari fed the ball in from the right, Henderson trapped it on his chest, drifted to the left and fired a left-foot drive into the top corner. The home fans had given their team sustained vocal support from the off, but you could still feel the pressure lifting around the ground.
By the 73rd minute it was party time. When Sessègnon was bundled over by Antolin Alcaraz the Benin international stepped up and made it 3-1 from the penalty spot – "a ridiculous decision," Roberto Martinez, Wigan's manager, maintained afterwards. Then Sessègnon, a £6 million January signing from Paris Saint-Germain, turned provider, squaring the ball for Henderson to claim his second with a neat side-footed finish.
The celebrating Sunderland fans could afford the luxury of an ironic cheer when the visitors' substitute Franco Di Santo halved the deficit in injury time. Their team were off the relegation hook – unlike Wigan.
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: Cattermole
Match rating: 8/10