SUNDERLAND took a massive step towards Premier League safety today with their first win at Old Trafford since 1968.
Victory was achieved through Seb Larsson’s first league goal of the season and some tremendously well-disciplined and dogged defending from Gus Poyet’s men.
But the Black Cats could have won by more - both Fabio Borini and Emanuele Giaccherini hit the woodwork in the second half.
Not that United were in any way pushovers under interim-manager Ryan Giggs with the home side dominating the possession stats and they could easily have won the game had they made the most of their chances.
But Hernandez was particularly profligate in front of goal and substitutes Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck were unable to make anything of the scraps they fed on.
Victory saw Sunderland’s bid narrow from a four-horse to a two-horse race with Cardiff losing 3-0 to Newcastle United and Fulham 4-1 to Stoke City to confirm their relegation.
It means only Norwich City -who are three points behind Sunderland with two games remaining but a far inferior goal difference and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge still to play - can get above the Black Cats.
It is an amazing turnaround but it was one Sunderland fully deserved on the back of Herculean efforts at Old Trafford where they stuck to their task to produce an amazing result.
Poyet and his players had gone into the game with confidence rightly high after notching back-to-back league victories and unsurprisingly the head coach named an unchanged side, with Santiago Vergini once again keeping Phil Bardsley out of the starting line-up.
Although Sunderland had not won at Manchester United in the league since 1968, their last visit to Old Trafford had ended in penalty shoot-out triumph in the Capital One Cup semi-final in January.
And hopes would have been boosted further for the visitors by the absence from the team sheet of the injured Wayne Rooney, while van Persie was only fit enough for the bench, where he sat alongside former Sunderland loanee Welbeck.
Giggs made five changes to the side which beat Norwich City 4-0 in his first game as interim manager but he retained the same 4-2-3-1 formation, with Hernandez the lone striker.
Man United kicked-off under blazing sunshine in front of a typically massive crowd and kept possession before earning a third minute corner which April Player of the Month Connor Wickham headed clear.
The home team continued to dominate with Ashley Young looking a constant danger on the right flank.
But Vito Mannone’s goal was not troubled further as Juan Mata thrashed wide and the Black Cats successfully negotiated the opening 10 minutes.
Sunderland got a glimmer of a chance in the 11th minute when Adam Johnson nodded on Santiago Vergini’s long ball but couldn’t direct it to the lurking Wickham.
Then a delightful glanced ball forward by Juan Mata in the 14th minute played in Nani down the left but his run was ended by a well-timed tackle from Lee Cattermole who set up a Sunderland counter - Johnson driving his side’s first shot of the game across the target from the right.
With quarter-of-an-hour gone, Sunderland were in danger of looking comfortable but at that point nerves were set jangling when John O’Shea almost clipped Michael Carrick’s low cross from the right into his own goal.
And then Nani fired just over the crossbar from United’s next attack before Patrice Evra went closest so far to opening the scoring when he nodded a left-wing corner goalwards from six-yards out and Mannone held on to the ball on his goal-line.
That series of attacks had Gus Poyet on his feet shouting instructions as Sunderland dropped deeper but they remained disciplined and started to probe.
United captain Nemanja Vidic was lucky to escape a booking when he shoved Fabio Borini in the back as Sunderland countered in the 24th minute. But Carrick was not so lucky a couple of minutes later when he clattered through the back of the Italian and received a yellow.
Sunderland were gradually prospering a little more going forward and Marcos Alonso drove wide following a set-piece in the 27th minute.
But it was still completely against the run of play when Sunderland took the lead on the half-hour.
After their first bit of real pressure of the game, the Black Cats kept hold of the ball on the right before Connor Wickham pulled a low ball back across the box.
Standing on the right, 15-yards out, was Seb Larsson, completely unmarked, and he drove a low right-foot shot across United keeper David de Gea and into the bottom corner of goal.
It was his first league goal of the season and only his second of the campaign, having scored against Southampton in the Capital One Cup in November.
United predictably responded and Alonso was booked in the 31st minute for chopping down the troublesome Young.
The home side had much of the ball, and much of it around the Sunderland area in the minutes that followed.
But they produced little of note until a long-range grass-cutter from Darren Fletcher in the 43rd minute which Mannone saw coming from a long way out.
With results going their way it meant that when the half-time whistle went, Sunderland were all but safe with Fulham and Cardiff losing their games staring relegation in the face.
Half-time: Manchester United 0 Sunderland 1
United started the second half with a quiet sense of purpose and had two chances to level inside the first five minutes.
First, Nani and Evra combined superbly on the left-hand side of the Sunderland area and Wes Brown had to be at his best to clear inside the six-yard box under pressure from Hernandez.
Then Vidic got on the end of a header and made frantic appeals for a handball which were brushed away by referee Webb.
United boss Giggs might have waited longer but decided he had seen enough and went for a more attacking option in the 52nd minute when he brought on Adnan Januzaj - scorer of two league goals against Sunderland earlier in the season - in place of Nani.
The home team’s dominance continued and within a couple of minutes of his arrival, the United substitute had seen a shot blocked.
Sunderland made a change of their own just before the hour when supersub Emanuele Giaccherini replaced Johnson.
The hour-mark came up with Sunderland’s travelling support in great voice but their team under growing pressure and they came desperately close to conceding from a corner from the right in the 62nd which sparked an almighty goal-mouth scramble before Larsson ushered the ball away.
Poyet brought on Jozy Altidore for the quiet Wickham in the 65th minute, United responded by bringin on van Persie and Welbeck for Mata and Young in the 67th minute.
It was about attacking a team as United could field but Sunderland gained respite with a spell of possession in the United half.
And Sunderland should have doubled their lead in the 74th minute when Altidore and Borini combined well on the right flank and the American centred for Giaccherini whose first-time shot hit De-Gea’s right-hand post before Colback followed up firing into the side netting.
United came back with a van Persie shot wide from close range before Welbeck rifled one over the crossbar from just outside the box.
Goalscorer Seb Larsson hobbled off in the 74th minute to be replaced by Liam Bridcutt and the last quarter-hour was played out with all six subs on the pitch.
By now, Sunderland were showing signs of tiring and Evra’s cross from the left should have been converted in the 80th minute, only for Hernandez to fire over from 10 yards out.
But Borini had a great chance to put the game to bed in the 85th minute when a slick move saw the ball end up at his feet on the right of the box and he crashed a curling left-foot shot against the crossbar before Alonso blazed the rebound over.
United looked increasingly frustrated and failed to trouble Sunderland further, even with four minutes time added on
At the final whistle, Sunderland fans - in tremendous voice all afternoon - cheered their heroes with chants of “We are staying up, say we are staying up.”
It looks all but certain they will be right, thanks in no small part to yet another great giant-killing act by Poyet’s players.
Full-time: Man United 0 Sunderland 1
Man United: (4-2-3-1)
1 De Gea, 4 Jones, 5 Ferdinand, 15 Vidic, 3 Evra, 16 Carrick, 24 Fletcher, 17 Nani (sub Januzaj 52) , 18 Young (sub Welbeck 67), 8 Mata (sub van Persie 67), 14 Hernandez. Subs not used: Amos, Smalling, Valencia, Fellaini..
25 Mannone, 27 Vergini, 5 Brown, 16 O’Shea, 28 Alonso, 33 Cattermole,
11 Johnson (sub Giaccherini 57), 7 Larsson (sub Bridcutt 74), 14 Colback, 31 Borini, 10 Wickham (sub Altidore 65). Subs not used: Ustari, Bardsley, Ba Scocco.
Booked: Carrick (Man United) 26, Alonso (Sunderland 31)
Ref: Howard Webb (South Yorks).