It was a Tuesday evening that took the breath out of your lungs and held it in front of you in a steamy mist of momentary warmth.
Forty thousand of us trudged towards the Stadium of Light, shoulders hunched, chins to chests, and backs ever-so-slightly turned eastwards in a mutual attempt to deflect the piercing gusts careering off the North Sea. The city was silent, frozen by February, but for those of us who ventured out to face a doubled-edged abyss.
Just as the wind battered the Wearmouth Bridge, reminding those crossing it of the nothingness that was perennially close, Manchester City turned up on Wearside ready to remind its occupants of the perennially close nothingness of Premier League relegation. And when Sergio Aguero prodded home in the sixteenth minute, it seemed like the temperature had dropped further and the wind had become sharper.
A familiar story appeared to be unfolding. For the home faithful, who had braved the frost not in expectation, nor even in hope, but more in staunch duty to their club and to their city, the match might as well have been over there and then. The wait for a late-season surge and revival would have to continue until next time.
And yet, they were not met with the sky blue deluge that had befallen the Black Cats before. For the remainder of the first period, the multi-million pound City strikeforce was blunted by the combined efforts of Billy Jones, John O’Shea, Patrick van Aanholt and new-boy Lamine Koné, who impressed with a rugged, enthusiastic debut.
Jan Kirchoff, ridiculed for his own debut when the Black Cats were unceremoniously overwhelmed by Tottenham in January, displayed calm and composure in a holding role, whilst Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Villa had little trouble in dealing with the visitors’ all-star midfield.
Indeed, rather than rolling over and piously submitting like they have done on too many occasions already this season, Sunderland grew in confidence. They began to cause regular problems for a City side that may have been more concerned with steadfastly ignoring the impending arrival of Pep Guardiola, than with the match at hand.
As it happened, the home faithful ought to consider themselves unlucky not to have been able to savour at least a point on return to the warm solace of their homes. Manchester City seemed quite happy to sit and soak up offensive pressure, which Sunderland had apparently become quite unaccustomed to exerting for any extended period of time.
So, when chances arrived, panic was usually the red and white response. Jones forced a good save from Joe Hart with a driven shot from 20 yards out, before O’Shea was the wrong man in the right place when a corner fell into his path late on. The captain, from 10 yards, only managed to scoop the ball over and into the night sky.
City, whether lethargic because of freezing temperatures or because of the managerial game of chess that had been played above their heads, held on to an unconvincing 1-0 victory, but it was Sunderland who showed the most promise. The home side showed glimpses of the quality that had typified that familiar late push for prolonged Premier League status. Whilst it was the bitterly cold February conditions which held the home faithful’s breath before Tuesday’s game, it was the hint of a half-decent performance which might lead those fans to carry on holding their collective breath well into March, April and May. Was a defeat to Manchester City on the most wintry of midweek nights the start of Sunderland’s annual grind for survival?