They lost the game and they lost their manager Ricky Sbragia, and yet they celebrated. They celebrated as if they had won the World Cup, the Grand National and the Olympic 1500 metres all on the same day. Sunderland have survived in the Premier League and despite suffering an eighth defeat in their last 10 matches, the news from Villa Park that arch-rivals Newcastle were losing and were relegated was enough to send Wearside into delirium.
Sbragia stepping back into the coaching set-up from which he emerged reluctantly in December following Roy Keane's walk-out was a surprise to no one. Despite an initial uplift in results – two four-goal victories over West Brom and Hull – Sbragia looked less comfortable the day his tenure was made permanent.
That has been reflected in three wins in the 19 league games since. Sunderland stayed up due to the deficiencies of others. "I'm delighted, not sad," Sbragia said. "I could've been selfish and kept it but I was thinking about Sunderland.
"For them to take the step to the next level they need a bigger name. I felt it was time to go, it was me who suggested it. My brief was to keep Sunderland in the Premier League."
Sbragia did that, and he is a good man. But Sunderland need a makeover. Superficially, losing 3-2 to a side of Chelsea's strength sounds laudable, but Chelsea, were conserving themselves for Saturday's FA Cup final. Frank Lampard was left in London. He will be fit for Everton.
Alan Shearer taking Newcastle down on the day that Sunderland stay up is the stuff of prayers round here. It is only three years since Shearer played his last ever game, on this ground, a 4-1 Newcastle victory that capped Sunderland's 15-point season. That will never be forgotten.
A third relegation in five seasons was a possibility but the club has survived the buckling effect of Keane's exit and the man whom Keane blamed that on, Ellis Short, was here yesterday to witness the club he is about to seize full control of.
Chelsea forced three corners in the first eight minutes, Michael Essien hit the side-netting and Didier Drogba provoked the first of three decent first-half saves from Sunderland keeper Marton Fulop.
In first-half injury-time Florent Malouda struck the crossbar, so though there was tribal glee at news from Villa, Sunderland were not there yet. Two minutes after the interval, reality bit anew. Nicolas Anelka buried a sweet shot from 20 yards. It was Anelka's 19th of the season, one more than Cristiano Ronaldo, and Anelka finishes as the division's top scorer.
Kieran Richardson equalised six minutes later but Salomon Kalou made it 2-1 on 74 minutes and after more weak home defending, Ashley Cole made it three. In the 90th minute Kenwyne Jones headed in a brilliant Andy Reid cross and there was then a wait for confirmation of survival. When it came Wearside erupted.
Sunderland (4-4-1-1) Fulop; Bardsley, Ferdinand, Davenport, Collins; Malbranque (Healy, 79), Tainio (Reid, 65), Whitehead, Leadbitter; Richardson (Murphy 87); Jones. Substitutes not used: Colgan, McShane, Edwards, Cisse
Chelsea (4-3-3) Cech; Boswinga, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Essien (Kalou, 65) Mikel (Mancienne, 79) Belletti (Ballack, 27); Anelka, Drogba, Malouda. Substitutes not used: Hilario, Stoch, Sinclair, Di Santo
Referee: M Halsey (Hertfordshire)
Booked: Sunderland Bardsley; Chelsea Cole
Man of the match: Mikel