IF JOZY Altidore had been any good or Steven Fletcher ever fit, would Connor Wickham have been granted the opportunity to put his stamp on last season’s Great Escape?
Recalling Wickham from a loan spell at Leeds United was a desperate last throw of the dice from Gus Poyet to inject a hint of potency into his forward line after Altidore was not up to it and Fletcher finally succumbed to the operating table.
Even then, Poyet was not totally convinced by Wickham until his smashing brace at Manchester City began Sunderland’s miracle recovery.
Circumstances can throw up these unlikely heroes, and you just wonder whether it might be the same with Danny Graham.
Had Fletcher avoided this year’s annual ankle injury, would Graham have got a chance?
If Sunderland had not spent so long on the back foot in the first half at Stoke City, would Graham have come on at the interval?
If Adam Johnson was free from legal problems, would the £10million man have formed a front three with Wickham and Jermain Defoe, and left Graham in the bit-part role?
Certainly, Sunderland had spent time training with the latter set-up in the run-up to the 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium.
But for a guy whose Sunderland career has largely consisted of abject misery since his £5million move from Swansea, Graham has grasped that chink of opportunity in the last one-and-a-half games so well that he will now spearhead the Black Cats’ bid to remain in the Premier League.
Some might not be able to grasp that reality, considering Sunderland’s desperate attempts to offload Graham last summer, plus his goalless streak in a red and white shirt now standing at none in 27 appearances.
The 29-year-old had almost become a figure of fun among Sunderland fans.
Yet while goals, pace and panache can all be questioned in Graham’s game, it doesn’t seem to faze him. The work-rate and commitment is there in spades.
The crowd responded to that, and to Graham, on Saturday. He was the one who led the way from the front and that will-to-win spread throughout the whole team.
It wasn’t just a case of Graham being a ‘trier’ though, albeit that damp praise has not been applicable enough at times for some in Sunderland ‘s ranks this season.
Graham was a threat against the Saints; having a hand in both penalties, injecting a physicality into the front-line which worried opposing centre-half Jose Fonte and Maya Yoshida, plus going oh-so-close to that elusive first Sunderland goal on the stroke of half-time.
Most importantly of all, Graham fits the more direct approach Dick Advocaat has ultimately plumped for and in the last game-and-a-half, Sunderland have looked as well-balanced as they have done all season.
For all Poyet’s laudable ambitions of playing an attractive, possession-based philosophy, it had become apparent that there weren’t the personnel on the books at the Stadium of Light to go that way.
By the time Poyet grasped that and attempted to adopt a fresh approach, he got muddled and lost all direction.
But Advocaat has gone back to basics – a battering ram centre-half, two narrow forwards looking for the second ball off him, a pair of full-backs given complete licence to bomb on and midfielders who can get up and down the pitch.
It’s simple, but in the current circumstances, effective.
Why prompt extra panic in the relegation fight nerve-jangler by playing the ball along the back-line, when you can go long and look to force the opposition into a mistake?
There’s still an element of football being played, with the ice-cool Jordi Gomez producing the best form of his Sunderland career so far under Advocaat.
But for the most part, Advocaat’s message boils down to getting both the ball and bodies much high up the pitch.
Taking a few more offensive risks has not come at the cost of defensive vulnerability either.
Southampton’s slapstick quick-fire equaliser, Filip Djuricic’s second half chance and Steven Davis’ last-gasp effort were all opportunities which came entirely from Sunderland’s own self-destructive making.
None stemmed from the Saints putting Sunderland under heavy pressure or playing the slick, sharp football which has characterised their campaign.
Yes, Sunderland rode their luck as the inevitable nerves kicked in and James Ward-Prowse was perhaps a tad unlucky to see red after bringing down Jermain Defoe following his awful first touch (one of several from the England striker).
But Fraser Forster avoided any punishment for mauling Fletcher when he was clean through at 2-0 during October’s 8-0, so the cliché about swings and roundabouts does ring true occasionally.
It’s inescapable to conclude that if Sunderland had failed to hang on, they would now have one foot in the Championship.
With everyone bar free-falling Newcastle suddenly finding form to avoid that one remaining relegation spot, Sunderland would have been cast adrift and realistically doomed if they had even come away with a draw on Saturday.
As it is, Sunderland remain very much in the thick of it; a point adrift of Leicester, an inferior goal difference to all-but Newcastle and a fixture list which on paper points to the Black Cats being firm favourites to join Burnley and QPR in the Championship.
Sunderland are still probably only a 50-50 bet to remain in the Premier League.
However shambolic the situation is up the road (where John Carver is channelling his inner Paolo Di Canio) two points from three games may still prove to be sufficient for a Magpies side who currently look to be the worst team in the top flight by some distance.
It’s a given that Sunderland have to beat Leicester in their one remaining outing at the Stadium of Light, but they may also need something on the road too.
Saturday’s trip to Everton is not much less of a “must-win” game than the Southampton one.
What a time it would be for Sunderland to record back-to-back league wins for the first time this season, particularly if Leicester fail to beat Southampton, as a victory over the Foxes the following week would then secure survival.
That’s a lot of ‘ifs, buts and maybes’, with each result seeming to bring fresh scenarios.
But when there was no room for error, Sunderland held their nerve and did the job against Southampton.
They must now do that again... and probably again after that.
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon 6, Jones 6, O’Shea 7 (Vergini 31 5), Coates 6, van Aanholt 6, Cattermole 8, Larsson 7 (Rodwell 82 6), Gomez 8, Wickham 7, Defoe 6 (Johnson 82 6), Graham 9. Subs: Mannone, Bridcutt, Reveillere, Buckley. Booked; Jones (32), Cattermole (60)
SOUTHAMPTON: K Davis 6, Clyne 6, Yoshida 5, Fonte 6, Bertrand 7, Alderweireld 6, Wanyama 6 (S Davis 7), Ward-Prowse 5, Long 5 (Djuricic 6), Mane 7 (Elia 6), Pelle 6 Subs: Gazzaniga, Gardos, Reed, Targett. Sent off: Ward-Prowse (54). Booked: Wanyama (63)
Man of the match: Danny Graham – Only thing missing for him was a goal, but was committed, hungry and bullied the Southampton back four. Rightly saluted by supporters at the final whistle.