Points rarely come more hard-earned than this. A goal behind and down to 10 men, Sunderland showed off their new, much-strengthened mentality by forcing an unlikely draw thanks to John O'Shea's second-half equaliser.

It leaves Tony Pulis's Stoke still in mathematical relegation peril but Sunderland in greater danger. Paolo Di Canio will take immense encouragement from his side's second-half performance but Sunderland's manager desperately needs a win against Southampton here on Sunday.

The heroes of Wembley 1973 made an emotional pre-kick-off appearance in the centre circle. Unfortunately for Di Canio the presence of Jimmy Montgomery, Bobby Kerr and fellow members from Sunderland's famous FA Cup triumph over Leeds 40 years ago failed to inspire Wearside's class of 2013 to a strong start.

Instead Stoke assumed a swift lead. Charlie Adam whipped in a corner laced with pace and curve, Jon Walters lost his minder and, when his header rebounded from the melee, Walters extended a boot and forced the ball over the line.

Although James McClean quickly tested Asmir Begovic with a deflected shot, Sunderland were up against it. It did not help that injuries to Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham, allied to Stéphane Sessègnon's suspension, meant that Danny Graham was Di Canio's sole available senior forward. Graham, deployed as a lone striker with Adam Johnson floating in the hole just behind him, was seeking his first goal since a £5m January move from Swansea. Generally, though, Stoke's imposing defence held firm, with Robert Huth offering several reminders as to why he is dubbed "the Berlin Wall".

A further hindrance to Di Canio's first-half hopes came in the shape of McClean. The Irishman saw an awful lot of the ball but did very little with it, some horrible touches perhaps suggesting he had become distracted by a comedic running battle with Adam. Fouling each other at every opportunity, the pair were embroiled in their own subplot and, after McClean wasted one chance to create a decent opening, a furious Di Canio wrinkled his nose in disgust before theatrically ordering Sunderland's substitutes to warm up.

When Adam became the victim of an awful challenge, Sunderland were reduced to 10 men but Craig Gardner, rather than McClean, was the culprit. As Gardner's studs slammed into Adam's ankle, Di Canio may have regretted saying, only last week, that his players lacked a "bit of edge" and "devil".

To his credit, the Italian responded to this latest setback thoughtfully, relocating Jack Colback from wide on the left to Gardner's former right-back role, shifting McClean left and moving Johnson – who impressed throughout – to right wing.

Things had turned niggly but the second half saw the emphasis switch from a rising yellow card count to some fine football and, perhaps endeavouring to erase a few of their manager's frown lines, Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson, Alfred N'Diaye, Danny Rose, Colback and, above all, Johnson passed and moved slickly.

It helped that, with Dean Whitehead and Steven Nzonzi booked, Pulis's central midfield were required to watch their step. Accordingly Johnson's low shot forced Begovic into a diving save and Whitehead cleared off the line from O'Shea.

With Stoke restricted to a couple of long-range shots, Di Canio's players were in the ascendant; so much so that when Larsson fizzed in a near-post corner O'Shea reacted first to equalise. Assisted, inadvertently, by Whitehead, who could only head the ball down in his direction, the Republic of Ireland centre-half saw the opening a millisecond before Ryan Shawcross and poked a close-range shot beyond Begovic.

Di Canio engaged in some am-dram interaction with the crowd that would have made even José Mourinho blush, and the stadium regained its full ferocious voice. Simon Mignolet saved smartly from Whitehead, Rose curled a shot on to the outside of a post and, when a subsequent chance went begging, Sunderland's manager furiously lashed out a boot, volleying thin air. Up in the posh seats the stars of '73 looked down, enthralled.