BIG MATCH VERDICT: Sunderland 2 Wanderers 2
IF Wanderers are going to drag themselves out of this mess then they might want to take a leaf out of the book of their battle-hardened skipper, or a fearless young man nearly half his age.
Kevin Davies has been here before. He knows the score. And he was well aware that as the press clamoured to praise his efforts against a side that tried to sign him in January, he knew that three points, and not one, would have really given him cause to celebrate.
This was vintage Super Kev – hunting down defenders in all four corners of the pitch, winning anything chipped up towards him in the air, and showing finishing skills that remain under-rated nearly two decades after his debut for Chesterfield.
Never one to shirk his responsibility, he admits his exuberance got the better of him on the edge of the Sunderland box, leading to James McLean’s well-struck free-kick that gave Sunderland their second goal.
But this was a case of leading by example, and if his sheer desire to keep Wanderers in the Premier League can transmit around the dressing room in this last three games, then Owen Coyle can rest easy.
By comparison, the unassuming figure of 18-year-old Josh Vela walked virtually unnoticed past the press pack as they waited to garner Davies’s thoughts on the relegation race.
Only half an hour earlier, the young Salfordian had been thrown into the action to replace the injured Nigel Reo-Coker – a baptism of fire indeed for someone with a few brief seconds of Premier League football on his CV.
It’s hard to remember a youth team graduate at Wanderers who had been thrown into such a ferocious situation and look so immediately at home.
The swagger and complete disregard for nerves he showed in those final 12 minutes is precisely the attitude Coyle will be looking for going into Wednesday night’s crucial clash with Spurs, even from the more experienced members of his squad.
Not that the Whites boss will have much complaint with the way his side are playing. They look more defensively solid, if unable to claim that elusive clean sheet, and since the nervy show at home to Swansea, seem now to be attacking with more purpose.
Unfortunately, such is the emergency that single points and battling displays are not going to be enough. It is also going to take a killer touch that evaded them at Sunderland.
Wanderers dominated early on, with David Ngog seeing one goal-bound shot blocked by Matthew Kilgallon and a goal wrongly scrubbed out for offside, and Mark Davies and Reo-Coker fizzing shots that worried Sunderland keeper Craig Gordon, returning after 14 months in the wilderness.
An hour before kick-off at the Stadium of Light, Fabrice Muamba had taken to Twitter for the first time since his collapse to wish his team-mates well. And the message certainly seemed to have inspired Wanderers, who were well worth the lead given to them by their captain in the 26th minute.
Tim Ream’s raking pass was flicked into the path of Martin Petrov by Davies, who turned to volley home the Bulgarian’s cross with composure.
Lee Cattermole was back in the Sunderland side after injury and wasted no time showing his true colours with an awful challenge on Mark Davies that was punished with a yellow card by referee Lee Probert. The former Wigan man pushed his luck considerably at times after that.
Cattermole’s midfield partner Jack Colback was going about things the right way, and it was his intelligent pass that sliced open a retreating Whites defence to allow Niklas Bendtner to slot under Adam Bogdan for his fourth goal against Bolton in as many starts.
It was the Wearsiders’ first goal in 431 minutes of football and proof that no matter how well the Whites seem to be playing, they remain incapable of completely closing things out.
There was still time before the break for Wanderers to recover their poise, and when Kevin Davies diverted Chris Eagles’ cross towards the far post, Ngog’s bouncing volley nearly caught out Gordon, who got enough of a hand to the ball to divert it on to the top of his crossbar.
Just 10 minutes had elapsed in the second half when the skipper lunged into a challenge with Stephane Sessegnon on the edge of his own area, allowing the Benin international to throw himself high into the air and ensure a free kick.
Questions have been asked about Bogdan’s positioning – but the venom with which McLean struck his shot from 20 yards to give Sunderland the lead leads one to give the keeper the benefit of the doubt.
How would Wanderers react? Coyle threw on Ryo Miyaichi and Ivan Klasnic for Ngog and the injured Eagles, and the pace picked up immediately.
David Wheater headed one good chance just over, but it was written in the script that Kevin Davies should redeem his earlier mistake. And that’s exactly what he did as he headed Sam Ricketts’ perfect cross past Gordon to set up a big finale.
It seemed to be a perfect stage for Klasnic, who had already had a couple of sighters by the time his big moment arrived. Kevin Davies once again beat Michael Turner in the air and the Croatia international spun to fire a shot towards goal which was blocked by the outstretched boot of Gordon.
With Vela now on for Reo-Coker, and showing an incredible willingness to get involved, you wondered whether there would be a sting in the tail.
But despite a couple of late corners daring the away fans to dream of a winner, Klasnic’s chance proved the last.
Davies, Coyle and Ricketts all looked on the bright side, suggesting that the point earned could prove crucial when the final league table is posted in a fortnight’s time. That might well be the case, and with so many players now finally showing their true worth, there should be optimism heading into the last three games.
The question is: have Wanderers timed their run too late, and will other clubs in the relegation race have a stronger kick to the line in the finishing strait?