ON paper it was the biggest away win of Martin O’Neill’s embryonic Sunderland career. On the white surface they played on instead, it was even more impressive.
So incredible has been the transformation of the dispirited, mangy Black Cats into pedigree felines that part of you thinks it must end soon. With Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle United among their next four league opponents it might, but a win which took their points tally under the Ulsterman to 22 from a possible 30 gave hope of something lasting.
If on Friday you had asked O’Neill to design football’s most difficult character test, it would still probably have been more comfortable than what faced Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium.
Twice under O’Neill they have played top-six clubs on their own patches, suffering their only defeats at Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. Stoke City may not have anywhere near the class of those expensively-assembled clubs, but in many respects theirs is the Premier League’s most difficult ground to win on.
Designed to make life uncomfortable for away teams, visiting the bleak ground is a miserable experience at the best of times. Every advantage that can be taken, will be, by a Stoke side good at what they do. Never mind the ferocious fans, even the ball-boys loathe you.
Compared to Saturday, though, most trips there are a picnic. Blue lines marked a snowbound pitch whose bumpy, narrow surface was even less conducive to the passing Stoke have eschewed under Tony Pulis, the aerial bombardment they prefer instead even harder to deal with as snow swirled into the players’ faces. With vents on the walls of the stairwells, it was snowing inside the stadium.
For Sunderland and their fans the discomfort was only just beginning. The vast majority were on the gridlocked roads by the time the stadium was evacuated. The Black Cats’ bus battled slowly through the traffic and when Manchester Airport finally reopened they could at last fly home. On the pitch, life had been made more awkward by a red card. To see an opponent sent for an early bath is more of an advantage than it used to be.
On the Premier League’s pristine playing fields, teams can quickly move the ball to exploit the space left. But with passing near impossible and the score 0-0, Robert Huth’s dismissal was an invitation for Stoke to man the barricades.