Sunderland 4 Cardiff City 0 match report: Connor Wickham on the double to fire Black Cats out of the relegation zone

Gus Poyet's team move up to 17th after the victory

“Three Little Birds”, three huge points. Sunderland’s supporters have once more turned to Bob Marley during a draining campaign: “Don’t worry,” they sang, “about a thing, ’cause every little thing is gonna be all right.”

It was an anthem when they flirted with relegation in 2009, only to be saved on the final day of the season because of Newcastle United’s failings. This time it has looked, for the most part, like the darkest of gallows humour. In the entire campaign, until Cardiff City traveled north today, they had won three home games in the Premier League. Never mind three little birds.

It is not so difficult to find a reason for what has happened to Sunderland in the last 12 days, why they have suddenly emerged, gasping for air, when everyone assumed they had drowned in a sea of mediocrity. Of course it is about Connor Wickham.

Wickham was again the seminal player, for the third game running. In that period Sunderland have beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Cardiff at the Stadium of Light and come within a whisker of doing the same to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, denied only at the death. Those seven points are worth an absolute fortune.

In the previous 12 games, they had picked up the same number of points.

There were periods today when the home support looked on in disbelief. They still expected a calamity at the finish; the campaign has left everyone at the club spent. Even with 20 minutes remaining and their side 2-0 up and with a man advantage following the sending-off of Juan Cala, they did not truly believe Sunderland would see it through.

 

They remember life a fortnight ago. Wickham had only returned from a loan spell at Leeds United on 24 March. He had scored one goal in 37 Premier League appearances. There is much science to what the Sunderland manager Gus Poyet does, but this was a stab in the dark gamble. It was hit or bust that no one truly believed would have Sunderland on the brink of safety by the end of April. Another two points could now see them safe. They have home games against West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City in which to find them.

Wickham again sent them on their way to victory today. The turnaround from forgotten man to hero is such that the fans as yet have no song for him. He did not take the Championship by storm on his loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and then Elland Road. He said on Thursday that something had just clicked. It clicked twice against the apology that was Cardiff.

It was a clever first goal, that of a player reborn, in the 26th minute. Wickham met a corner from Seb Larsson that bounced in front of him and steered his header into the far corner of David Marshall’s goal, but do not overlook the pitiful defending of Kévin Théophile-Catherine. He was not alone on that score. With the first half due to finish, Cala’s first touch as he headed towards his own goal was awful and Wickham was onto it and past him. Cala began his foul outside the penalty area, but it was so poor that he failed to bring Wickham down.

The offence continued but referee Phil Dowd waved play on. Marshall then threatened to bundle the Sunderland forward over as he was forced away from goal. Dowd recalled play, awarded Sunderland a penalty and sent off the defender (“the best decision I have ever seen in my life,” Poyet would later say).

When Fabio Borini coolly slotted home from the penalty spot, the game was over. When it had finished, Cardiff had managed one shot on target.

The substitute Emanuele Giaccherini slid in a fine third goal for Sunderland and with four minutes remaining Wickham once again proved too much for a Premier League defence, heading Giaccherini’s left-wing corner past Marshall.

“I said the thing needed a shock,” added Poyet. “Connor. Simple as that. Today he scored two headers. The first goal was at the top, top level. It was outstanding. We are getting the breaks, right at the right time. It is easy for me to pick the team now.

“We have done nothing. There is still games to play. Everything can change. We have put ourselves in a great situation. We talk about miracles. In two weeks’ time, I hope to be here saying  miracles happen. It has been the most strange, unexpected and incredible season I have ever seen.”

Fourteen coachloads of fans had left Wales in the early hours of the morning. They must have wondered what for.

“Of course we have taken a big blow,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Cardiff manager. “We have got two games left; we have to win both of them. We looked at this one as a possibility for three points. I’m not the type of person who sits here and complains. You have to accept the referees have to make a decision. We have big characters. They don’t sulk. We can still do it.”

Vincent Tan, Cardiff’s owner, has scarred the club’s first season in the Premier League. “Dragons”, a nickname he tried to bestow upon the Bluebirds, never looked more ill-fitting than with the passionless outfit from South Wales. There was no fire, no desire. It will take a miracle to save them now. At least Poyet and Sunderland will offer one crumb of comfort. You should never stop believing.

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