Sunderland were descending into the heart of darkness at the Stadium of Light when they rediscovered their character. A goal down and a man down, Paolo di CanioÔÇÖs side staged a spirited second-half comeback to claim a point that could prove vital in the scrap to stay in the Premier League.
Ten hungry men never gave up. SunderlandÔÇÖs passionate support never stopped believing and were rewarded.
This was an examination of SunderlandÔÇÖs resolve and they passed impressively. Trailing to Jonathan WaltersÔÇÖ early goal and losing Craig Gardner to a filthy late tackle on Charlie Adam, Sunderland could have folded.
These are the moments when seasons can be made or broken. Defeat would have left a tumbling Sunderland even more vulnerable to Wigan AthleticÔÇÖs late run.
Di Canio looked around the dressing-room at half-time and saw some crestfallen figures, so he went to work on their minds, inspiring them.
Sunderland emerged rejuvenated. Depleted in numbers but not in energy, they worked overtime hunting the equaliser, making light of the numerical disadvantage.
Adam Johnson became more involved. Danny Rose was outstanding, performing almost two roles, left back and left-wing. SunderlandÔÇÖs captain, John OÔÇÖShea, led by occasional strong word and then, most significantly, by deed, equalising after 63 minutes. OÔÇÖShea and Rose deserve huge credit. Di Canio too.
Special mention must also be made of SunderlandÔÇÖs supporters, all but 355 of the 38,130 crowd, who understood their team was standing close to the abyss in the first half.
Their emotions were being twisted this way and that but they continued to chant, to support, to keep the faith. This was an unconditional love supreme. Di Canio praised them afterwards. So did Tony Pulis.
PulisÔÇÖ Stoke side are surely safe after this point, following two successive victories. They remain 11th, six points clear of 18th-placed Wigan, who have a game in hand, against Swansea City tonight. The draw hoisted Sunderland to 15th, rising above Newcastle United and Norwich City on goal difference. If Wigan win, there will be four sides on 38 points with two games remaining. ÔÇ£Welcome To The JungleÔÇØ as Guns NÔÇÖ Roses thundered over the speakers at half-time.
This was not a night for patience. This was a night when Di Canio had called for more passion, for more effort to ensure that another ÔÇ£humiliationÔÇØ like the 6-1 loss to Aston Villa would not repeated.
SunderlandÔÇÖs head coach said it was an affront to the ÔÇ£dignityÔÇØ of the club. Yet the first half threatened a repeat. From AdamÔÇÖs ninth-minute corner, Walters escaped Gardner and headed powerfully goalwards. His header crashed into Danny GrahamÔÇÖs shoulder and rebounded back. Walters was the quickest to the loose ball, ramming it in.
Nerves seeped into Di CanioÔÇÖs players, poor control scarring their attempts at finding a passage back into the game. Gardner needlessly conceded a corner, almost comically. James McClean hammered a shot so far wide, the fans sighed in disbelief. Sunderland fans sensed the fear in the players.
They kept exhorting them, trying to lift the players to get back in the game, to banish the spectre of relegation. A good cross-field pass from Johnson almost triggered a Mexican wave. Some anger spilt from the terraces too. When Cameron Jerome went in high on Rose, Lee MasonÔÇÖs failure to punish him caused consternation. The Stadium of Light was furious when Carlos Cu├®llar was then cautioned for catching Jerome.
The Sunderland fans had just finished their salute after 32 minutes for the 1973 FA Cup goalscorer, Ian Porterfield, when memories of such golden days seemed even more distant.
Gardner and Adam had been niggling away at each other when the Sunderland No 8 decided to inject some venom into the duel. Both were going for the ball when Gardner lifted his right boot, catching the Scot on the ankle. It was a horrific challenge. He could have broken AdamÔÇÖs ankle.
Mason took his time, taking the heat out of the situation, calming the pushing combatants, before showing Gardner the card. Sunderland are almost running out of players.
Steven Fletcher is injured while Gardner joins the already-banned Stephane Sessegnon in the stands for the home game against Southampton and then the trip to Tottenham Hotspur.
Sunderland refused to yield. In the second half, Johnson skipped past a couple of tackles and fired goalwards but straight into the arms of Asmir Begovic. OÔÇÖShea was getting closer, having a shot cleared by Dean Whitehead off the line.
The game flowed from end to end, and Simon Mignolet saved well from Steven NÔÇÖZonzi. But then came the goal that Sunderland deserved.
Larsson curled the ball in, and Danny Graham made the decoy run, dragging markers out of position. The ball skimmed Whitehead and whistled on to OÔÇÖShea, whose left foot did the rest, sending the ball in off Begovic. Di Canio turned towards the stand and screamed his delight. The ItalianÔÇÖs name rang around the Stadium of Light.
In the away dugout, Pulis was living every moment. When WhiteheadÔÇÖs shot thudded goalwards, Mignolet saved well and Pulis slammed down a water bottle.
Stoke were beginning to regain control but found Mignolet in defiant mood, punching clear an Adam corner that swirled menacingly in to the area.
Sunderland still had chances. Rose cut inside and his right-footed shot clipped the post and slipped away. When Graham then got close with 10 minutes remaining, Di Canio almost burst out of his suit as he kicked an imaginary ball with incredible force.
Pulis then removed Adam, sending on Matthew Etherington. The winger soon began curling in corners from the right, one of which was met by a hooked effort from NÔÇÖZonzi but over.
Sunderland refused to surrender that precious point.