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May 5, 2014

Sunderland's act of escapology warms the heart of neutrals

For all the money sloshing around in the Premier League, for all the posturing and playacting of the modern game, there remains a sense of romance and tradition at the heart of it.

Sunderland's astounding recovery, lifting them from the near certainty of relegation to the verge of safety, is a fairytale for the fans. Beyond the tribal rivals of Newcastle United and the embittered ranks of three other teams -- two doomed to relegation, one staring it in the face -- supporters everywhere have warmed to Gus Poyet's stirring exercise in escapology.

On Saturday night, after the heroics of a first win at Old Trafford in nearly half a century, many people assumed Sunderland's Premier League status was already secure. Surely a Chelsea team still serious about the title could not fail to beat Norwich City at Stamford Bridge the next day?

We now know that Chelsea could indeed fail to beat the Canaries. But no matter. Sunderland's final act of survival can still be completed without waiting for a tense final day of the season on Sunday. All they must do on Wednesday night is avoid defeat to West Bromwich Albion in front of more than 40,000 roaring Mackems at the Stadium of Light.

Confidence could hardly be higher after three wins in succession, those stunning days at Chelsea and Manchester United flanking the one truly convincing home display of the season, the 4-0 trouncing of Cardiff.

Sunderland supporters are well versed in preparation for rude awakenings, but even they are starting to believe the West Brom match can be the start of a staying up party. And even if they did lose, Poyet would have one further golden opportunity to deliver what Seb Larsson, scorer of the winner at Old Trafford, says would be among the proudest moments of his career. That missing point or three could be wrung from the final game at home to Swansea, making it unnecessary to rely on or care about how Arsenal get on at Norwich.

There is, of course, the nagging question of Sunderland's brush with football rules that has encouraged teams to challenge the Premier League's decision to issue a fine and not a points deduction following the Ji Dong-Won fiasco.

The club played the South Korean forward in four matches without international clearance after his return from a loan spell in Germany. It was, the club insists, the result of a clerical error on behalf of FIFA. This would put it in a wholly different category from, say, West Ham's serious breach of regulations over the 2006 signing of Carlos Tevez and even that led to no points deduction.

While it is hard to blame the drowning man who clutches desperately at a flimsy reed, non-partisan observers have fully explained why Norwich should have no hope of persuading the Premier League or a court of law to toughen Sunderland's punishment retrospectively.

Yet it is hard to imagine a more deserving escape than that which Sunderland have made possible with the superb away performances at the Etihad, when Manchester City were lucky to snatch a draw, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford.

Did I mention tradition? Sunderland have a grand history, even if three of the six top-flight titles listed in the club's honours were won in the last century but one. The red and white stripes worn by generations of players are a strong part of that tradition and I would horrified at any move -- whether by club or sponsors -- to change to anything else.

If I were a supporter of Southampton, I would have felt the same when that club's red and white stripes were ditched. And now, it is reported, West Brom are planning something similar with their kit, replacing those familiar bold blue stripes dating from the 19th century with mere pinstripes on an overwhelmingly white design.

From what I have seen, it looks ghastly. Fans are outraged -- 75 percent voting against the new strip in a local newspaper poll -- as the club retreats behind a convenient refusal to comment.

Now if anything merits a points deduction, this is it.