at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Having secured Sunderland's Premier League status that appeared doomed at the turn of the year, manager Gus Poyet says he can finally afford to relax for the first time in seven months.
The Wearsiders became the second team after West Bromwich Albion in 2004-05 to avoid dropping into the second-tier Championship after being bottom at Christmas, Poyet having reinvigorated a bloated squad that seemed resigned to its fate.
Wednesday's 2-0 win over West Brom, their fourth consecutive victory, earned the point they needed to retain top flight status ahead of their final match at home to Swansea City on Sunday.
“It's an incredible day, I'm going to be able to go home and relax for the first time in seven months, which is very special,” the Uruguayan told the club website (www.safc.com).
“We've made this incredible escape and it's going to be remembered for a long time.”
A little over a month ago the Black Cats looked odds-on for relegation, having given up a 1-0 lead at Tottenham Hotspur to meekly fall to a 5-1 loss which saw them seven points off safety, albeit with two matches in hand on their cellar-dweller rivals.
The defeat left the demonstrative Poyet claiming they would need a miracle if they wanted to move out of the bottom three.
Divine inspiration was in short supply next time out when a Wes Brown own goal saw them lose their fifth straight match, 1-0 at home to Everton, before two goals to Connor Wickham earned a point at Manchester City, likely to be crowned champions on Sunday.
That proved the turning point as Sunderland engineered a dramatic form reversal as they beat Chelsea, Cardiff City, Manchester United and West Brom to rise to 14th in the table.
The former Chelsea and Tottenham midfielder, who replaced Paolo Di Canio in October with the club having achieved only one point from their first seven matches and subsequently led them to the Capital One (League) Cup final, which they lost to Manchester City, said saving Sunderland was his biggest achievement.
“It's one of the happiest days of my life,” he told reporters.
“I'm absolutely delighted, I'm proud and so pleased for the fans.
“It's been difficult, very difficult, but we've stayed up in a certain style. We've shown you can stay up despite being seven points adrift with a month left - but it'll be a miracle if something like this happens again...”
Having ignited the career of Wickham, twice sent out on loan this season before returning to score five goals in the last five matches, and seen the likes of fellow striker Fabio Borini, Jack Colback and Lee Cattermole show marked improvements in form, Poyet would discuss with owner Ellis Short ways to improve the squad.
“We don't want to be here again, that is fundamental,” he said. “I don't want another seven months like this. I'm strong but I don't want to have a heart attack.
“If you keep playing with fire, you're going to get burnt and Sunderland have had three seasons where they have been in this position and that needs to change.” – Reuters