HAVING urged his players to produce a “miracle” at the start of the month, Gustavo Poyet admits his Sunderland side now have a “golden opportunity” to complete one of the greatest escapes of the Premier League era.
The Black Cats climbed out of the bottom three for the first time in almost three months as they hammered relegation rivals Cardiff City 4-0 to rack up their biggest success of the season.
Two Connor Wickham headers bookended goals from Fabio Borini and Emanuele Giaccherini as Sunderland moved above Norwich City on goal difference to climb to 17th position.
Claim seven points from their remaining three matches against Manchester United, West Brom and Swansea, and they will now be guaranteed to remain in the Premier League.
Six points would almost certainly be enough no matter what happens, such is their goal difference advantage over the sides currently in the bottom three, and with Cardiff, Fulham and Norwich all having just two games remaining, it is conceivable that three more points could see the Black Cats safe.
Either way, things now look much brighter than they had seemed when Poyet appeared to write off his side's chances in the wake of a resounding 5-1 defeat at White Hart Lane.
“We have given ourselves the biggest opportunity we could dream about,” said the Sunderland boss. “It is a golden chance, but we have to finish it off.
“We have done everything we can, but we have done nothing. There are still three more games to play, and everything can change.
“But we have put ourselves in a great position. We are in the best position possible. It didn't look good (at the start of the month), and there was talk of miracles. Let's see if I am telling you that miracles happen in two weeks time.”
Yesterday's key moment was the 45th-minute dismissal of Cardiff defender Juan Cala in an incident that also resulted in Sunderland being awarded a penalty, that Borini clinically dispatched.
Cala tugged back Wickham as he headed towards the box, and while the initial contact took place outside the area, the centre-half still had his arm around his opponent as the pair crossed the 18-yard line.
Wickham remained on his feet as he attempted to shrug off the foul, and while referee Phil Dowd allowed play to continue for three or four seconds as Sunderland attempted to carve out a chance, he rightly came back to the initial offence when the Black Cats' attacking move broke down.
“It is the best decision I have seen from a referee in my life,” said Poyet. “Simple as that. If you really want to stop players going down easily, this is the way.
“So all credit to Phil Dowd. We have all wanted this (kind of decision), but for some reason, it has not been possible in the past.
CON JOB: Connor Wickham celebrates his and Sunderland’s first of the match. He went on to score again in a crucial 4-0 win over relegation rivals Cardiff City
“The (Matt) Jarvis incident (when the West Ham winger was not awarded a penalty after he tried to stay on his feet) has definitely helped us, because since then we have been talking about this kind of thing.
“So from now on, it is, 'Try to play the game because the referee will back you'. It was a foul, a red card, and the best decision I have ever seen.”
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was incensed by the decision at the time, but to his credit, the Cardiff boss refused to criticise Dowd in the wake of a defeat that has dealt a potentially fatal blow to the Bluebirds' survival ambitions.
“I'm not the type of person who sits here and complains about refereeing decisions,” said Solskjaer. “We've got to accept that they've got to make a decision there and then, and there's no way I'm going to let my principles go because it's a hard enough job as it is being a ref.
“But of course when you go in after a decent half, when you've kept them quiet, 2-0 down and down to ten men, and you've got to come here and win the game, it makes it very difficult.”
Cardiff's task might have been simpler had it not been for Wickham, whose return from an unsuccessful loan spell at Leeds United has transformed Sunderland's season.
The 21-year-old has scored five goals in the last three games, and provided the kind of cutting edge that was nowhere to be seen when the Black Cats were relying on Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher.
“I've talked about getting shocks, and we've got one from Connor,” said Poyet. “He's scored two headers, and that's important for a striker of his size.
“His first was a top, top level. I was hoping he would do something like this. He needed a run of games, and in football, there are players who say, 'Give me five games and I will show you what I can do'. He has done that.”