Ivorian defender Lamine Kone scored twice as Sunderland secured their Premier League survival and relegated Norwich City and local rivals Newcastle United by comfortably beating Everton 3-0 on Wednesday.
For the fourth consecutive season, the Wearside club secured an unlikely escape from relegation and despite spending 226 days in the bottom three this term, the Black Cats can look forward to a 10th consecutive top-flight campaign in August.
It means they can relax as they prepare for Sunday’s final-day trip to Watford, while Norwich, who make an immediate return to the Championship despite victory over Watford, and Newcastle were left to reflect on what might have been.
The final whistle at the Stadium of Light sparked scenes of jubilation among manager Sam Allardyce and his back-room staff, following a trying season.
The question of the morality of the points won by disgraced winger Adam Johnson prior to his imprisonment on child sex charges remains a thorny one, but this was another stunning act of escapology under a fourth different manager.
Allardyce had warned his side against complacency as they looked to build on the stunning 3-2 victory over deposed champions Chelsea that set up this chance to clinch safety and they were rarely in trouble against an Everton side who are in a major end-of-season slump.
The Merseyside club have won just one of their last 10 league matches to further undermine the position of beleaguered manager Roberto Martinez.
Sunderland posted a fifth game unbeaten to reach the 38-point safety target set by Allardyce with another all-action display in front of a passionate 47,000 crowd.
They found the net twice in the space of three minutes shortly before the break to seal only the second back-to-back wins of a campaign that has seen Allardyce transform the club’s fortunes since the 61-year-old took charge in October.
– Robles flaps –
Top scorer Jermain Defoe has almost single-handedly kept Sunderland in the top flight with 15 goals, but it was two defenders who soothed the nerves on Wednesday.
Their mounting pressure finally told with half-time approaching.
After a foul on Defoe 25 yards from goal, Patrick van Aanholt stepped up to send in a curling 38th-minute free-kick that Joel Robles totally misjudged, the goalkeeper almost diving out of the way as the ball found virtually the centre of the net.
Robles partially made amends with a fine reaction save to repel Defoe’s header, but from the ensuing corner the hosts doubled their advantage.
Everton failed to clear Wahbi Khazri’s set-piece and when the ball fell for Kone unmarked six yards out, the big defender sent a thundering volley into the roof of the net.
The Paris-born centre-back — who had not scored for the club prior to this game following his January move from French club Lorient — claimed his second of the night soon after the restart.
Young defender Matthew Pennington had already cleared a Defoe effort off the line as Sunderland maintained their first-half momentum and when Robles continued his night to forget by flapping at another Khazri corner, Kone had the simple task of firing the loose ball into an unguarded net.
Vito Mannone kept out headers from Ramiro Funes Mori and Gareth Barry at the other end, while Romelu Lukaku hit the bar in stoppage time, but they were rare scares for the hosts, who comfortably saw out the remainder of the contest to spark wild celebrations at the final whistle.