SO far for Sunderland fans this has been a season more to be endured than enjoyed.
But on the south coast on Saturday, there was a shaft of sunlight amid the teeming rain, a moment of relief mingled with joy, pride, festive fun and mischief for the near 2,000 heroic foot soldiers who made the thankless 700-mile round trip 72 hours before Christmas Day.
They bore witness to a result which will be as important as any for the club this season. A result which ensures Sunderland fans can have a happier Christmas.
For no one should underestimate a result which allows Sunderland to see out 2012 knowing a return to the bottom three is unlikely in the extreme.
The Black Cats have not taken down any of the big beasts this season. Their wins have come against Fulham (the only team above them in the table), Wigan, Reading and Southampton.
But victories over the strugglers have been doubly important for Sunderland, depriving rivals at the bottom of points which might have threatened them.
And in a game which the hosts started as favourites, it was fascinating to watch Sunderland’s obdurate approach eventually prevail.
That they did so, was ultimately down to Steven Fletcher’s eight goal in 16 league appearances, but this was about a genuine team effort because victory was built on a defence which not only refused to be intimidated, but which effectively dominated the game.
From the very first minute of the game, when skipper John O’Shea emphatically headed a long ball away from his own penalty area, Sunderland set the tone.
And it was no coincidence that from that clearance, Danny Rose’s shrewd through ball saw Stephane Sessegnon turn and smack a speculative long-range effort which ex-Black Cats keeper Kelvin Davis tipped around the post, flinging himself high to his left to tip the ball away one-handed.
Davis had been Sunderland’s keeper during that horrendous Mick McCarthy 15-point relegation season in 2005-06 – a man whose heart was in the right place, even if his gloves never were – and travelling fans would have loved to seen him beaten with less than 60 seconds on the clock.
After that early Sessegnon scare, though, the home side established themselves in the game and by midway through the first half – with Sunderland’s defence solid and destructive – the match had become scrappy.
With defences dominating at either end, it needed something a bit special to break the deadlock and it came in the 42nd minute when Adam Johnson – such a peripheral figure in the game – ghosted across from the right-wing unmarked to the left-hand corner flag.
James McClean spotted him and his pass forward was pulled back by Johnson into the path of Sessegnon at the near post who scuffed his shot only for it to go through straight to the feet of Fletcher at the far post who made no mistake.
His powerful left-foot finish gave Sunderland the lead.
It took the home side until the 62nd minute to seriously threaten the Sunderland goal and even then, Jose Fonte’s header from a left-wing corner was going wide as it struck Jack Colback.
As the game wore on, Sunderland were becoming increasingly nervy with just the one-goal lead to protect and Martin O’Neill prowled around the technical area urging calm on his players.
But still the Saints could not force a genuine opening on goal as Sunderland lived dangerously.
Substitute Fraizer Campbell, who had grabbed Sunderland’s consolation goal in the 3-1 defeat to Man United the previous week, made another important contribution, but this time defensively when he flung himself in the way of a goalbound effort in time added on.
Davis sprinted up front for a corner which might have given the game the most bizarre postscript.
But Sunderland held on for only their second away win in 17 Premier League games, and fans who had made the long journey down there celebrated wildly, as they were entitled to, before the long journey home.
The win means Sunderland go into the home games against Man City and Spurs with nothing to lose. But, more importantly, after Saturday’s win, they also have less to worry about.
It means they can have a go at the high-fliers safe in the knowledge that defeat would not be the end of the world but a draw or win might continue turning their season around.
For Sunderland fans, it’s the promise of a happier Christmas.
Boxing Day’s game might just be a belter.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 6; Gardner 7, Cuellar 7, O’SHEA 9, Rose 7; Johnson 6 (Campbell 74, 6), Larsson 6 (Bardsley 70, 5), Colback 7, McClean 5; Sessegnon 7 (Vaughan 89, 5); Fletcher 7. Subs not used: Westwood, Bramble, McFadden, Wickham.
SOUTHAMPTON: Davis 6, Clyne 6, Yoshida 5, Fonte 6, Shaw 6, Schneiderlin 6 (S Davis 59, 6), Cork 6, Puncheon 6 (Do Prado 79, 6), RAMIREZ 7, Lambert 6, Mayuka 5 (De Ridder 54, 6). Subs not used: Boruc, Hooiveld, Rodriguez, Richardson.
Man of the match: John O’Shea. Outstanding contribution. He and Cuellar won just about everything, and the two effectively demoralised the Saints.
Highlight: Steven Fletcher’s fine finish to settle the game in Sunderland’s favour. Where would the Black Cats be without his goals?
Lowlight: The Premier League’s decision to schedule a 700-mile round trip for Sunderland fans three days before Christmas.
Scorers: Fletcher 42.
Bookings: Larsson (44, Johnson 69, Bardsley 79.
Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham).