Wigan left the Stadium of Light wondering if miracles really might happen, while hundreds of Sunderland supporters did not bother to leave immediately, gathering outside to protest against the chairmanship of Bob Murray in the knowledge that they need more than a miracle.
These two teams were promoted last season, Sunderland seven points ahead of Wigan as champions. These two teams invested the same amount of money over the summer - Sunderland's £4m compares favourably to Wigan's £6m as the latter also had to replace Nathan Ellington, whom they sold for £3m. Yet Sunderland, on 10 points with a caretaker manager taking charge of his first game, stare gloomily at the probability of becoming statistically the worst side in Premiership history, while Wigan, 33 points ahead, are starry-eyed at the possibility of Europe.
"It has to be a reality because there are so few games left," the Wigan manager Paul Jewell said. "We must have a chance because we are up there. It would be a miracle - but it is a miracle for us to be where we are."
Ellington's replacement, Henri Camara, won the game with a wondrous eighth-minute strike, after Lee McCulloch had risen above a host of half-hearted defenders. It was Wigan's first win in nine matches and it gave the miracle renewed substance.
"I want to make sure the season doesn't peter out," said Jewell. "We don't want to just stumble over the finish line. If we play as we did against Manchester United last Monday, we'll end up in Europe. If we continue playing like we did today, we'll finish on 43 points." The goal aside, this was painful watching - "like having teeth out without anaesthetic", Jewell said.
Sunderland bossed the remainder of the first half while lacking the Camara-class to beat the excellent John Filan, but then played what must surely have been the least effectual second half that the Premiership has witnessed since Sunderland were relegated with a record low of 19 points in 2003. It climaxed with the non-scoring £1.8m striker Jon Stead missing from a yard or so in the final minute.
"I thoroughly enjoyed it," said Kevin Ball of his first game since last week's dismissal of Mick McCarthy. "As a manager you look for the positives. When the team goes a goal behind like that, they can flag, but I was impressed by the response. I enjoyed looking round for the leaders who were going to drag the others through."
Thus, the only miracle on the day was that so many dragged themselves through the second half to demand the sacking of the Sunderland board after the final whistle.
Goal: Camara (8) 0-1.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Davis; Nosworthy, Caldwell, D Collins, McCartney; Delap (Le Tallec, 63), Whitehead, Leadbitter, Arca (Lawrence, h-t); Kyle, Elliott (Stead, 86). Substitutes not used: J Murphy (gk), Hoyte.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Filan; Chimbonda, Scharner, De Zeeuw, Baines; Teale (Thompson, 58), Bullard, Kavanagh (Ziegler, 63) McCulloch; Camara (Johansson, 82), Roberts. Substitutes not used: Walsh (gk), Jackson.
Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire).
Booked: Sunderland Kyle.
Man of the match: Filan.
Attendance: 31,194.Reuse content