The exhilaration of survival as Sunderland breeze past WBA
Let the party commence. Sunderland are safe.
Little does it matter that supporters became a little subdued, maybe even restless, in the second half of Wednesday's game against West Brom, the only other Premier League team to have worked the sort of miracle Gus Poyet has managed with Sunderland. Bottom at Christmas, safe in May.
It is as unbelievable as it is exhilarating to look at a league table showing Sunderland not in the bottom three, not even hovering immediately above but up to the heady heights of 14th thanks to Manchester City's 4-0 drubbing of Aston Villa, making it likelier than ever that the title is heading to the Etihad.
But it has also changed my mind as to the proper recipient of the Premier manager of the season award. In my entirely partisan view, Poyet deserves it as much as Tony Pulis merits his reportedly massive bonus for keeping Crystal Palace up.
Reaching a Wembley final -- in which Manchester City were as flattered by winning the Capital One Cup as they they were when clawing a draw at home to Sunderland last month -- was creditable in itself. Getting as far as the last eight of the FA Cup was to be admired. Saving a club that seemed adrift at the bottom of the league until two or three weeks ago was little short of breathtaking. And doing it with a run-in that concluded with visits to three of England's top clubs -- and grabbing seven points from them -- was frankly astonishing.
The detail of the 2-0 win against WBA is almost irrelevant, but it is worth pointing out that the season-saving goals came from the players who might not be around next season. Jack Colback, out of contract and said to be wishing away, superbly converted a cross from on-loan Marcos Alonso for the first. On-loan Fabio Borini expertly hooked home the second after a magnificent, weighted pass from Seb Larsson, whose contract expires this season.
All season, Black Cats supporters have whinged about the quality of the squad. Now, survival assured, they might be about to lose the players whose telling contributions made safety possible.
Despite being one of the world's most experienced pessimists, I did not expect the match to end other than with Sunderland having snatched at least the single point needed to ensure Norwich, crazed mathematics apart, could not finish higher. I expected a tense draw or narrow win. It proved to be a lot more comfortable; the second half, with Sunderland 2-0 up, was scrappy but never worrying.
A third, killer goal would have placed icing on the cake. When a glorious pass from Jozy Altidore, desperate to make amends for a bitterly disappointing season, put Lee Cattermole in sight of goal, it seemed likely to come. But Cattermole, a model of cool resilience up to that point, no longer had quite the legs to exploit the opportunity. Altidore also had a great chance to hit the back of the net after replacing Connor Wickham; he was pulled up for what seemed an imaginary offside, but how I wish he had at least hit the back of the net instead of blasting the ball wide.
Altidore, in my view, should start on Sunday in the final game at home to Swansea City, with Wickham on the bench but assured of a piece of the action.
If we may by now safely discard the preposterous notion that Sunderland should be docked points over the Ji Dong-Won affair, nothing but pride rests on the outcome, much as Sunderland supporters would wish for a barnstorming finish to a punishing season. But would it not be wonderful if the big American striker could rattle home a goal or two to remind everyone what he is capable of? An exceptionally difficult season for supporters to bear is ending happily. The arrows have been dodged once again, and Premier status is preserved. Sunderland supporters must now hope that Poyet is committed to the next phase of the task: resisting offers to manage elsewhere, keeping players who seemed set on leaving, rebuilding the squad with choices of his own and rewarding the wonderful fans who, week after week and often in a state of wretched endurance, have given the club a level of support that is second to none.
Poyet has worked the miracle. Now he has the chance to move onwards and restore lost glory to a club that, believe it or not, was once a dominant team, winning six top division titles between the 1890s and 1935.