Full-time: Sunderland 0 Everton 1
THERE is a strange sense of acceptance around the Stadium of Light these days that Sunderland's seven year Premier League stay is over.
Despite a spirited performance from the players and the 35,000 or so home fans, the general feeling among supporters is that Championship football will be returning to Wearside next season. It is hard to disagree.
Since the excitement of reaching the Capital One Cup final at Wembley and the disappointment of being knocked out of the FA Cup at the quarter-final stage by Hull City, Sunderland have lacked the quality to stay up.
It might have taken yet another own goal – the seventh of the season – to condemn Sunderland to another defeat, but that was the fifth straight reversal at a time when Gustavo Poyet is in desperate need of points.
The bigger picture is that Sunderland's only win from their last 11 matches arrived in the FA Cup on February 15. They have not won in the Premier League since the euphoric 3-0 win at Newcastle 14 days earlier.
How things have changed and the seven point gap to safety with six matches remaining appears too wide to bridge.
Lee Cattermole, a midfielder whose character suggests he would never give in, said: “It was going to take a freak goal or a bad deflection to beat us but we’ve got to play like that on a regular basis to give ourselves a chance of winning games.
“Football is cruel, but you try not to feel sorry for yourselves. It’s too easy to just throw the towel in, that’s the easy way out of it. I could have done that personally at the start of the season.
“I could have wrapped this in, but you dig in and keep going and let’s face it, no team is going to go out there and feel sorry for you and say ‘there you are, have three points.’”
Now is not really the time for Sunderland owner Ellis Short, the players or Poyet to be playing the blame game. What is clear is that there is going to be another summer of huge change at the club regardless of what division they are in.
If Sunderland are to achieve the 'miracle' which Poyet quite rightly claims is required then the likelihood is that they need to at least defeat either – or both – Manchester City on Wednesday or Chelsea on Saturday.
To stand any chance of that happening, Sunderland need to repeat the improved performance they turned in against Everton, while also finding a way of becoming more potent in the correct penalty area.
Poyet, who did not field any of his January signings, has tried numerous things to try to address the goalscoring problem which has seen them score just 29 in 32 league games. Sunderland have actually scored more own goals this season than any player in the squad has scored at the right end, except for Adam Johnson.
Sunderland's Jack Colback in an aerial battle with Everton's James McCarthy
Cattermole said: “We definitely still believe in the manager. It has been a really strange season, but we’ll come to all that at the end of it.
“But the lads fully back the manager, training has been good and anybody at the stadium on Saturday would see that the fans have backed us all the way.
“We’re very grateful. That's the first time I’ve played on the losing side at Sunderland and not been booed, so it was a sign of appreciation at the performance I thought.”
From the first whistle, Sunderland looked hungry to spring a surprise result to give their fading hopes of avoiding the drop a boost. Poyet decided to scrap the five-man defence he has used against Tottenham and Liverpool, reverting to a lone striker system and fielding Connor Wickham there.
Wickham was lively enough, occasionally threatening, but the only time Tim Howard was beaten he had John Stones to thank for a block on the line from Fabio Borini's effort before half-time.
Everton should have been ahead by then anyway, particularly when Steven Naismith turned Wes Brown in the area before shooting over the bar from 12 yards.
There was even more improvement after the restart from a Sunderland view, with Howard regularly tested even if he did not have to make an outstanding stop. The best Sunderland chance was when Ki Sung-Yueng headed Johnson's cross wide, while Borini curled a fine effort just to the left of the upright from 20 yards.
But Sunderland's promising play went unrewarded and the latest cruel blow was struck. When Spaniard Gerard Deulofeu, who tormented Sunderland throughout, got beyond Marcos Alonso there still seemed little danger.
But then Deulofeu's cross struck the thigh of Brown at the near post and nestled inside Mannone's near post. Sunderland's players dropped to their knees in disbelief. Cattermole, discarded by Di Canio at the start of the season, was one of those.
He said: “What happened to me at the start of the season was, in personal terms, a lot tougher than this. I’m right at the heart of it now and you just keep going.
“You can talk all day, but that performance should be good enough to win some football matches and it’s up to us to repeat it.
“We can look ahead and say we can win our home games but we haven’t been doing that all season, so you can’t really plan to win any games.
Gus Poyet drives on his Sunderland players against Everton
“You just go into every game and try to find a way to beat the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. We’ve got to go to those places and really give it a go.”
A failure to do just that and Sunderland could be guaranteed Championship satus next season far sooner than anyone at the Stadium of Light would have liked.