John O'Shea claws Sunderland one step closer to salvation
Sunderland 1 Stoke 1: He stood, arms aloft in the centre of the Stadium of Light, and all around, Sunderland supporters stood, and applauded and sang his name.
Paolo Di Canio stood, arms aloft, in the centre of the Stadium of Light, and all around, Sunderland supporters clenched their fists and sang his name.
John O'Shea had scored a goal of a value that is still impossible to predict but it was Di Canio's acclaim. Rarely has a point been cause for such celebration and only in two weeks' time will it be possible to find the true significance of moving a points total from 37 to 38, but to those supporters, it looked huge.
That it had been done when Sunderland had only 10 players, and that they had come from behind added to their belief that the manager who arrived in such a storm may yet make sense of this miserable season, that they can stay in the Premier League.
Last season Martin O'Neill kept this football club up. In 2009, Ricky Sbragia dragged it over the finish line, beaten on the final day, but victorious in the battle to preserve a status it has squandered on three occasions.
Now it is Di Canio's turn to match those achievements.
The nervousness with which he constantly tugged at the Sunderland tie around his neck was notice of how serious this situation is. The noose tightened last night and then slackened dramatically with a goal that in truth O'Shea knew little of. Perhaps last night will prove a momentous part of Di Canio's burgeoning managerial career, but it is way too early to say that either.
Nobody of a Sunderland persuasion was trying to figure out why another two points had slipped away at home, with the glow of a gratefully received point still oiling the throats for song. Stoke are relegation rivals. Victory would have moved Sunderland level with Stoke. Stoke have won one of their last six away games (at Queens Park Rangers). Questioning failure and missed opportunities is not an encouraged past time in the North-east.
A brave fight back, triggered by a rousing half-time pep talk from Di Canio, was enough for last night's celebration, and you cannot weigh in too heavily with criticism because the league table presents such a mind-numbing combination of possibilities. Tony Pulis looked very happy with life last night. "We're 11th in the table with two games to go," he said. "We're unbeaten in three." The three are Norwich, QPR and Sunderland. One of those has already been relegated and one of the other two could join them.
Stoke's goal difference stayed at minus 10 with the draw. That, in light of the permutations left this season, could be the best thing you can say about their position. Norwich, Newcastle and Wigan are all minus 22 or minus 23. Sunderland are minus 12 and that level of scrutiny is vital given the margins we are dealing with here.
Di Canio acknowledged briefly that an opportunity had slipped away. "Win today and it would be different," he added. "40 already, but in the way it came, the point is vital. I am sure about that. I saw the fighting spirit. The quality. The performance. They were warriors but the shape and organisation were there. We dominated the game with 10 men. We had more determination and desire in the second half."
The significance of moving to 38 points from 37 is similarly difficult to quantify. Sunderland play Southampton on Sunday at the Stadium of Light and that game is now massive. Sunderland's last game of the season is at Tottenham, who will be pushing for the Champions League. Sunderland will be without Steven Fletcher, Danny Rose, Lee Cattermole, Stephane Sessegnon and now Craig Gardner for that game at White Hart Lane after another red card for Di Canio's team. He called his team masochists for making life difficult, but he had asked for more edge from his players in midweek. He got it in the form of a horrible tackle. The sending off did however, gave a reason for the Sunderland supporters to back their team. Jon Walters' ninth minute goal had punctured a belief that is understandably brittle. Sometimes you have to watch the self-destruction of North-east football and wonder at its originality. In the 32nd minute, there was applause for the winning of the FA Cup 40 years earlier. It had not subsided when Gardner took out Charlie Adam with an awful tackle. For that he was rightly sent off. The applause ended then, but Di Canio dragged something from a set of players who flirt with disaster with careless neglect.
All Sunderland have to cling to (and they are down to the barebones in terms of personnel) is the volatility and chest thumping of their new manager. Without it yesterday, they would not have gained a point.
"At half time we were good," he said. "We were together. There was a very high belief for us to come back. I tried to motivate. I saw a few faces that were very down. but in the last 15 minutes of the first half we were on top. We tried to keep the shape.
"The players gave everything but we have to be careful. I love Craig. He has heart and passion and dedication. He is [an] amazing professional but we do not have time to recover from the mistake."
Di Canio gave praise to the two central defenders, Carlos Cuellar and John O'Shea, for standing firm at the heart of his side. The two men played well. O'Shea left a left foot out to get enough on a Seb Larsson corner in the 63rd minute to divert the cross past Asmir Begovic.
It could be one of the biggest goals a Sunderland player has ever scored, but it might not.
Di Canio gave another window into his mind when he was asked if he had watched the second leg of Swindon's play-off with Brentford.
"What was the score?" he asked as way of an answer. "I have enough problems of my own."
Goals. Sunderland: O’Shea 63. Stoke Cty 1: Walters 9
Substitutions: Sunderland Vaughan (Larsson, 86) Bardsley (Johnson, 90). Stoke City Cameron (Wilson, h-t), Etherington (Adam, 83), Crouch (Jones, 90).
Booked: Sunderland Cuellar, Larsson. Stoke Nzonzi, Whitehead.
Sent off: Sunderland Gardner (34).
Man of the match Rose. Match rating 6/10.
Poss: Sunderland 55%. Stoke 45%.
On target: Sunderland 7. Stoke 7.
Ref L Mason (Lancashire). Att 38,130.
Belfast Telegraph Digital