A rearranged relegation battle played out on a cold December evening may just turn out to be the most vital game of Sunderland's season.
WITH the best will in the world, Tuesday evening at the Stadium of Light was not a game that jumped out of the fixture list at you.
Third-bottom Sunderland, with two league wins to their name all season, took on Reading, the team directly below them in the table, who could boast a record of just a single victory.
Neither side had played at all well up to that point and both managers, Martin O’Neill and Brian McDermott, had spoken in recent times about being in a relegation battle.
And it was really, really cold. Unless you were a supporter of either club, it’s a fair assumption that few around Britain cared who won the rearranged match.
However, for O’Neill, his players and the Sunderland supporters, this bottom-of-the-table clash, forgotten about by almost everyone else, was the biggest and probably most important game of this season.
If Sunderland had lost, or even drawn, all talk would be about the manager’s future, no matter what he or owner Ellis Short said.
The men in red and white, however, produced a fine performance full of character, determination, some decent football and three good goals into the bargain.
A tired-looking O’Neill ended his post-match Press conference by admitting he had lost his trail of thought as he started to struggle for words. You couldn’t blame the man. It has been a trying time. However, one thing he does know for certain is that the players are behind him 100%. That has never changed.
Simon Mignolet was asked whether there had been any talk about O’Neill’s position as the weeks rolled by and the defeats kept coming.
The Belgian goalkeeper said: “Nobody thought even about those kind of things in the dressing room and I think the gaffer’s done a great job last season – he’s doing that still.
“He gives all the players a lot of confidence to go out and play and even in awkward situations like the other night we can do that.
“All the lads were confident stepping out on to the pitch and that’s the main thing when you are in that position. We were very confident we were going to win.” Sunderland didn’t dare lose on Tuesday. It was as simple as that. And in all fairness they never looked like doing anything other than winning following James McClean’s opening goal after two minutes.