Sunderland will start next season in the Premier League. Not until around half past nine tonight has it felt safe to say that since August, when the first whistle blew, with an ounce of conviction.
For the best part of 10 months, this football club has fluttered its eyelashes at catastrophe. As recently as 27 April they were bottom of the Premier League. A manager (Paolo Di Canio) has been sacked (after a player revolt). A director of football (Roberto de Fanti) has gone following a shambolic summer recruitment drive. They have fielded an ineligible player (Ji Dong-won) and gone on runs where they have not won for 10 games.
And yet tonight, by the time Jack Colback and Fabio Borini, on loan from Liverpool, had both scored against an uninterested West Bromwich Albion in the 31st minute, they were safe.
The Sunderland manager, Gus Poyet, has carried a heavy load since he stepped into the void left by Di Canio's departure. Some of that weight lifted off his shoulders with the first goal in the 13th minute. Poyet punched the air in delight. Sunderland were on their way to victory and they did not disappoint their fans.
To have won four games and drawn one in their last five is a run that has stunned everyone.
With two minutes remaining, a ground with 45,000 in it rose to its feet. There was disbelief but the elated fans clapped and waved scarves. Sunderland may have lost the battle for the Capital One Cup final in March, but they have won the war for their survival. Now it looks certain that Norwich City will be relegated to the Championship. Norwich, third from bottom, trail West Bromwich by three points, but Albion have a vastly better goal difference – a 17-goal swing in their favour.
Sunderland were all but safe by half-time. Nothing has been simple in this chaotic season of cup runs and dire Premier League form. The recent run to safety has come from nowhere. Less than a month ago, a Wes Brown own goal at home to Everton in a 1-0 defeat appeared to spell the end. Sunderland were bottom then. Since then, they have been unstoppable.
After a run that saw Sunderland beat Chelsea and Manchester United and draw at Manchester City, West Bromwich have never threatened to offer a pin to pop the Wearside bubble.
With just 13 minutes gone, Marcos Alonso broke down the left and crossed into the heart of the visitors' penalty area, where the lack of desire among the defenders allowed midfielder Colback to charge in and fire his side ahead.
By the time Sebastian Larsson clipped a clever pass to the Italian Borini eight yards from the West Bromwich goal just past the half hour mark, the confidence and determination of the home side was such that the forward ignored the possibility of being flattened by goalkeeper Ben Foster to volley in a sublime second goal.
West Bromwich showed a degree more urgency in the second half, but that was not saying much.
Albion's Stéphane Sessègnon, the former Sunderland forward, dragged two shots wide when he should have done better. His side's season was saved on Saturday. Sunderland's fight finished in glory. Quite how no one really knows.
Man of the match Borini
Match rating 7/10
Referee L Mason (Greater Manchester) Att 45,181.Reuse content