If Jermain Defoe was even half-right in saying that the sheer passion and noise of Sunderland's support helped to win Saturday's match against Chelsea, there is reason for cautious hope that another massive Stadium of Light crowd can roar the side to safety against Everton on Wednesday.
The 33-year-old striker says he was moved to tears by the way a sell-out crowd of more than 47,000 greeted his winner.
With 25 minutes (including stoppage time) but no loss of intense encouragement from the stands, Sunderland held out to leave themselves one win from certain survival with two games remaining. It was an occasion to match great days at Roker Park, where Sunderland played until moving to the Stadium of Light in 1997, and recalled its Roker Roar, a wall of sound generated by armies of earlier fans. As Defoe also pointed out, the support on Saturday was almost as vociferous when the team twice went behind.
"The fans won us the game," the former England striker said. "Even when you are tired, when the fans roar like that you find something, you find an energy." But manager Sam Allardyce, whose leadership has counted almost as much as Defoe's 15 Premier League goals in the battle for survival, sees part of his role as reminding players and fans alike that there is still work to do.
Allardyce, who also praised the supporters' role in a win that put Sunderland a point ahead of Newcastle and four points above Norwich, then tweeted a solemn warning against complacency.
BIG SAM: "Don't come to @StadiumOfLight with the expectation that it's job done because it isn't..."
- Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) May 9, 2016
He is right to insist that nothing has yet been accomplished, but perhaps the most calming feature of the denouement to a punishing season is that Sunderland can lose to Everton and still stay up, provided they either win in the final game at Watford or witness further slips by Norwich and Newcastle. Securing Premier League status by winning in the last home match would be fitting reward for the supporters who have remained faithful, give or take the odd collective tantrum when things have been really bad, despite being required to put up with a steady diet of appalling football and rotten results.
Everton have had a bitterly disappointing season but as has been shown in a handful of games, manager Robert Martinez has assembled a side that should be doing a lot better. Allardyce will expect, and natural justice demands, that they try as hard to win this game as any other. But Sunderland are equally equipped to make that last step and avoid unbearable last-day jitters at Watford. Another display of the grit and intermittent flair that finally overcame a Chelsea side that had moved the ball smoothly and threateningly in the first half would do it.
Most eyes have been on Defoe as the escape act has gathered strength with only two defeats in 12 and one in the last nine. But after the Chelsea game, the ESPN FC panel was right to identify not only his tireless running as a lone striker and enduring goalscoring ability -- five goals in eight games -- but also the sound defensive formation Allardyce has found. Centre-backs Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone have been key to this improvement and may offer the strongest pairing Sunderland have had in recent times.
Sunderland have become masters of the art of survival. None of the players should need artificial inspiration to produce for Allardyce what previous squads managed for Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat. But five current first-teamers, including three (Vito Mannone, Lee Cattermole and Fabio Borini) who will probably start on Wednesday, are unlikely to have forgotten the equivalent scenario of only two years ago. Back then, the truly hard work was done with sensational wins at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Then, they made relegation impossible in a midweek game ahead of the season's final day, beating West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at the Stadium of Light. Borini was one of the scorers and the result relegated Norwich.
A similar scoreline against Everton, and the same outcome for both Norwich and Newcastle, would make Sunderland a happy city on Wednesday night.