A grand day out
It is, the lyrics of Everton's historic anthem attest, both a grand old team to play for and to support. Twelve months ago, it was neither. Everton were marooned in 16th place after five defeats in six games; Goodison Park had been enveloped in despondency after the departure of Mikel Arteta, with Everton's inability to find a goalscorer meaning that, whatever else they did, they rarely won.
Advance a year and they have traded the bottom five for the top four. Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic were the contributors to a comeback that ensured David Moyes' 400th Premier League game in charge had a fitting conclusion. Non-stop running has enabled a fearsomely fit side to snap at the heels of the oil-powered champions of England and Europe, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Now Sunderland sit in the bottom quarter of the table, ending the game in the position Everton occupied in their awkward autumn of 2011 and showing certain similarities with their conquerors. The gloom has descended on Wearside, the sense of a club going nowhere becoming more pronounced by the week. Even an improved performance brought a familiar result. A third successive defeat left Sunderland grateful that the bottom three sides have mustered one win in 32 league games this season.
Like Everton 12 months ago, they are a team of two halves. "They have got the third best defensive record in the Premier League," Moyes noted. They are also the lowest scorers in all four divisions. Whereas Everton lacked strikers, Sunderland have been short of shots, let alone goals.
After the famine came a comparative feast. One goal and four shots on target amounted to rare riches for Sunderland, if few others. But while Adam Johnson opened his account for the club - becoming their first player to score since September and their first to net in the league, with the honourable exception of Steven Fletcher, since May - it ultimately counted for naught.
Indeed, some of the travelling Wearsiders appeared giddy with excitement when they had a fourth-minute shot on target; after just 13 all season, Stephane Sessegnon's fourth-minute effort was a cause for both celebration and recrimination. The Benin international should have scored but, ineffective all season, he was at least influential. In a bright start, he also set up Fletcher for an effort that skewed just wide.
"Sessegnon was outstanding for long periods," O'Neill said. No stranger to hyperbole, the Northern Irishman appeared carried away by a display that was more encouraging than, to use his word, "exhilarating".
He added: "The players played brilliantly, away from home against a side that have a great chance of being in the Champions League. It was a great performance. We should have been out of sight at half-time. We should have been three up."
Nevertheless, there was a suspension of disbelief when Johnson then slid in to convert Craig Gardner's lovely pass. Sunderland found themselves in almost uncharted territory. Without an away league win since February, without a victory at Goodison Park since 1996, their lead had a novelty value.
But if Everton had tempted fate by inviting Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager 16 years ago, onto the pitch, they also displayed some of the spirit the Merseysider brought to their midfield in the 1980s. "We kept going and the players showed great character," Moyes said.
They also illustrated their ability. Johnson had cleared Johnny Heitinga's header off the line before three minutes produced two goals. Fellaini's crisp strike from the edge of the box put them on level terms, and then the battering ram showed his subtle side, a flick of the heel sending Jelavic through to score. "I thought it was going to be one of those days," Moyes added. "It looked like a 1-0 to Sunderland."
Instead, it became a 2-1 to Everton. Momentum swept both sides along. Everton have now only lost once in 20 league games; Sunderland have won just once in 18. If they are destined to remain in the lower half of the table, O'Neill appeared to tip Everton for a top-four finish. A grand old team have a Champions League dream.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Marouane Fellaini. Another influential performance by the Everton talisman. Fellaini has already doubled his goal tally from last season and Moyes, that most unsentimental of managers, was purring at his performance. "He has got great chest control, lovely soft feet and he can play," he said. "He is a really important player for us."
EVERTON VERDICT: Leon Osman was also excellent. Given a belated England call-up at the age of 31, he illustrated why by playing a part in both goals. When Moyes praised his side for their interplay, he had Osman in mind. The shame for Everton was that they lost Kevin Mirallas, who was threatening, with a hamstring injury in the first half. A concern could be that Sunderland's early chances came via their inside-left channel with Sessegnon and Fletcher finding room inside Seamus Coleman.
SUNDERLAND VERDICT: At least the creative contingent of Sessegnon, Johnson and James McClean provided more of a spark and they had more chances, but there were still not enough for them to shake off the feeling of sterility. This is an underachieving group of players and, with a trip to Fulham next, things may get worse before they get better.