NEVER before has conceding a late penalty, surrendering a lead, and dropping two points felt so life-affirming.

For half an hour after Jack Hobbs opened the scoring, Wanderers fans watched through their fingers as Sunderland bludgeoned the Bolton goal.

Hearts fluttered with every chance that bounced off the woodwork, pulses raced as the agile Remi Matthews stood defiant in the latter stages, and there was a distantly familiar sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach when the fourth official held up a board signalling five minutes of added time.

Yoan Zouma’s late handball gave Sunderland a get-out-of-jail-free card, greedily accepted by Aiden McGeady, and Wearside fans who had recently instructed Black Cats boss Jack Ross that he ‘doesn’t know what he’s doing’ were dancing in the South Stand.

Football has indeed returned to the University of Bolton Stadium in all its gut-wrenching, blood pressure-raising glory. And we would not have it any other way.

It seems incredible to think that this long-standing fixture, now in its 135th incarnation, was contested in the Premier League just over seven years, and so many wasted millions of pounds ago.

Sunderland’s rapid decline can still be reviewed on Netflix and one can only hope a club of its size, tradition and fanbase can soon earn a more upbeat sequel. Wanderers’ scars still feel fresh to the touch, but a team created in the most pressurised circumstances imaginable are now offering them a chance to heal.

So ingrained has the safety-first philosophy become in recent times, it still seems slightly surreal watching Wanderers play their way carefully out from the back, or seeing a genuine wide man torment his full-back in the way Thibaud Verlinden did to Denver Hume in the first 45 minutes.

There are still missing pieces in the puzzle, deficiencies which are impossible to mask in the few weeks Keith Hill has had to throw this squad together, but the entertainment factor is undeniable. Wanderers are now worth the entrance money.

How far the team can ride the wave of goodwill and positivity, who knows? By the time the players next step out at the UniBol there will be season ticket holders in the seats and, potentially, a new kit available – all essential building blocks to restoring normality.

The early indications of what Hill is trying to establish have been well-received. Verlinden and Dennis Politic offer a huge threat running at defenders and an array of skills which can bring a smile to any stony face. If they can marry that up with a degree of defensive responsibility, Wanderers will be cooking on gas.

Full-backs Josh Emmanuel and Adam Chicksen have taken important steps since that hellish debut at Rotherham, as have centre-halves Hobbs and Jake Wright – both of whom looked solid until Wright hobbled off with a hamstring strain.

Will Buckley’s renaissance is in its early stages. He no longer looks to have the weight of the world on his shoulders as he has for much of the last couple of years and seems to be enjoying playing under his former Rochdale mentors. Shadowed by the industrious Ali Crawford, Bolton have happened across a decent front line in the injured Daryl Murphy and Chris O’Grady’s absence.

The three people who took centre stage against Sunderland perhaps have the most to prove.

Remi Matthews offered his frank thoughts on criticism he had received on social media after keeping his first clean sheet of the campaign against Oxford United on Tuesday night. The keeper has had a torrid 12 months at Bolton but has the sort of belligerence and attitude that can make him a popular figure on the terraces, given the right team playing in front of him.

Liam Bridcutt appears to be cut from the same sort of cloth. His lack of football at Nottingham Forest in the Championship was a mystery, not least to him, but his class has been immediately apparent. All good midfielders have a brashness about them, a desire to dominate territory, and the former Brighton man is already winning over plenty of fans.

Lastly, and by no means least, is Jason Lowe. A more conscientious or willing employee you could not wish to find – but placed at the fulcrum of a static midfield under Phil Parkinson, he has found it difficult at times to express himself on the pitch. The cliché ‘good professional’ has somehow gained derogatory connotations but the Leigh-born midfielder is as good a role model as there is in the Bolton camp for the young players looking to get themselves into first team contention.

Hill needs some of his younger players to progress to a point where he feels comfortable putting them in, as a tiring side looked in desperate need of refreshment in the final third of Saturday’s game.

Wanderers had more than held their own for the opening half. Verlinden threatened with every skip down the wing and Politic watched a curling shot bounce off the inside of the post.

Hobbs’ goal, scooped in from close range after Buckley headed Crawford’s free kick across goal, gave the Whites something to hold on to. The last lead – earned at Rotherham – had lasted just moments, but unlike the Millers, Sunderland’s wayward finishing gave hope that this one could go all the way.

Matthews denied Lynden Gooch and McGeady with some wonderful goalkeeping which backed up the bravado shown in his post-Oxford interview and twice had the woodwork come to his rescue.

But, alas, the Black Cats’ bad luck did not hold out. Zouma came on for Wright – now surely a doubt for Portsmouth – and instantly ingratiated himself to the home fans with a towering headed clearance from a corner.

In the 91st minute McGeady tried to pick his way through on the edge of the box, the ball bouncing off Zouma’s hand – now an instantly punishable offence under new penalty rules.

Hill later branded the handball “naïve” and “stupid” – a summation which seemed a tad on the harsh side. But if Zouma is to grow into the defender his physical prowess suggests he could be, he will unquestionably need to sharpen up the mental side of his game. Wright’s impending absence through injury may mean the youngster’s resolve is tested sooner rather than later.

Any strains of disappointment – perhaps the first of the new management’s reign – will be quickly abandoned on Monday morning as the next challenge at Fratton Park comes into view.

Wanderers remain a work in progress but that football progress can be analysed and debated is a refreshing thing indeed. Two points lost, yes, but a step further taken down the road to long term recovery, definitely.