SUNDERLAND'S Premier League status was effectively secured for a further year last night and Gustavo Poyet was quick to pay tribute to the players who are on the verge of pulling off a “miracle”.
Norwich City's resilience proved enough to earn a point at Chelsea yesterday evening but means the Black Cats require a point from their remaining two games to stay up.
Given Sunderland's goal difference is superior by 13 and have a game in hand on Wednesday against West Brom, Norwich can basically start to plan for a return to the Championship in August unless Sunderland lose their next two games.
While there were claims yesterday that Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich are preparing to take legal action against the Premier League over the decision not to Sunderland dock points for fielding an ineligible player earlier this season, Poyet's men just been getting on with the job they have had to do on the pitch.
It has been an incredible turnaround on Wearside. Just two weeks ago Sunderland were staring at a seven point gap to safety with the rest of the division sitting above them. Poyet claimed at that point it would take a miracle to avoid relegation.
Since then Sunderland have claimed ten points from 12 – consisting of a point at Manchester City and victories over Chelsea, Cardiff City and now Manchester United – to climb out of trouble.
Despite the large number of players facing uncertain futures at the Stadium of Light, Poyet thinks it is testament to the characters within the squad that the job is on the verge of being completed despite not knowing if they will be still at the club next season.
“There were moments, after the Tottenham game and what happened there when we lost 5-1, when we had problems and injuries which were setting up things for me and the players,” said Poyet.
“As we stand today, Santiago Vergini doesn't have a contract (for next season), Marcos Alonso is going back to Fiorentina, Seb Larsson and Jack Colback don't have contracts, Fabio Borini is going back to Liverpool – we're talking about a lot. (Ki Sung-Yeung, Phil Bardsley, Keiren Westwood, Andrea Dossena, Oscar Ustari and Craig Gardner are all coming to the end of their deals too].
“But the players, they don't want to go down. They have wanted to fight for their lives and I think we have been defending in an incredible manner. Even conceding the two goals against Manchester City we were really strong that day, and in all of the last four games especially.”
He added: “There has been a commitment from the players to do something special. I called it a miracle a few weeks ago, you know that. The belief, the commitment, the fighting spirit, the things people take for granted, they kept going and kept believing, that's incredible.”
Despite the troubles Manchester United have encountered this season, few had expected Sunderland to go to Old Trafford and win for the first time since 1968. That was exactly what they did courtesy of Seb Larsson's first half volley and an effective counter-attacking display.
It was a victory that proved crucial at the foot of the table, condemning both Fulham and Cardiff to the Championship after their defeats at Stoke and Newcastle respectively.
“It's nice that teams don't want to play us. I wish we could keep playing for a couple of months and keep moving up the table,” said Poyet. “That was the idea from the beginning (to be a team others didn't want to play against).
“After January I thought that would be the case but everybody knows after the (League Cup) final we were on a run that was scary. There were too many questions and they needed plenty of answers. It wasn't easy. I tell you, it was not enjoyable at all.
“You need to believe, make sure everybody believes, and keep doing it. You have to give your all and try your best. Sometimes you're not good enough and you need to take it but we didn't want to give up. Especially the players on the pitch have been incredible.”
If Sunderland can go on to defeat both West Brom on Wednesday and then Swansea City next Sunday then there is every chance they will finish around 14th. They could even finish higher if results went their way.
While Sunderland's players deserve credit for the the way they have improved fortunes in recent weeks, the impact of young striker Connor Wickham has even got England boss Roy Hodgson looking.
Hodgson paid a visit to Old Trafford to watch the English players in action and he will have noticed Wickham's fine delivery for Larsson's winner.
Hodgson is unlikely to turn to Wickham for this summer's World Cup after only recently proving he could handle the Premier League stage with five goals in three games, earning him the Barclays player of the month award for April.
Poyet said: “When you set up an international squad you need options. From the players available you will need someone with pace, you will need someone who can hold up the ball, someone in the box, someone who drops off. He's going to have to pick one or two big players – is it (Andy) Carroll, is it (Rickie) Lambert, is it Connor? That's up to the manager really.
“But what Connor's doing well is putting his name in there, from the Premier League. That's what he wanted to do and he couldn't before. He need to keep improving and he is doing that.”