WHATEVER Steve Bruce said to his players at half-time clearly worked as a fine second-half display finally gave Sunderland their second win of the season.
Stephane Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner struck in the last 10 minutes to at last give Bruce & Co. some much-needed breathing space.
No doubt the smile will be back on the players’ faces in training this week, and if they can replicate their post-interval performance for the rest of the season, then any talk of relegation struggles would be foolhardy.
To be honest though, they needed to do better after a turgid first-half display – matched by Bolton’s – which simply showed them up as a team pre-occupied with the perilous state that they found themselves in prior to kick-off.
To say there were two Sunderlands out there would be a valid point as after half-time, they emerged as a side with more purpose and intent who proceeded to bash Bolton’s door until it caved in late on.
The result did seem unlikely early on. Sunderland survived a scare in 13 minutes when David Ngog found acres of room on the right. He raced towards the byline and pulled it back to Darren Pratley who should have done better than slotting his effort wide.
Seven minutes later and keeper Simon Mignolet did well to keep the score blank after a long ball picked out the head of Kevin Davies, only for the Belgian to clutch the ball at his near post.
Truth be told, this was as good as the first half-hour got as both sides mirrored the classic stereotype of two struggling teams playing each other – trying to keep things tight and wait for the opposition to gift you a mistake.
Chris Eagles’ clumsy attempt to curl one into Mignolet’s top corner and Kieran Richardson’s long-ranger which seemed more at home at one of the many rugby league grounds near the Reebok summed up the first half. Given that Halloween is just around the corner, it was apt these two sides should put up a display as ghastly as this, but given that both teams were desperate for a win, a braver approach was surely required?
It looked as if Sessegnon would put everybody out of their misery in 38 minutes. Sebastian Larsson’s inswinging corner fell to the Benin international who was unmarked at the back post. But those expecting the ball to go in were to be disappointed as he blazed his volley well over the bar.
Some Sunderland fans thought John O’Shea had headed them into the lead from Larsson’s free-kick, but the ball only found the side-netting at half-time.
The second half started brightly, with Bolton setting about Sunderland with neat passing which saw Martin Petrov’s curling effort from the edge of the box saved by Mignolet. Sunderland began positively but they should have struck the opener in 52 minutes.
Good work by Sessegnon allowed him to jink inside the Bolton area.
The midfielder’s cross fell to Richardson whose half-volley was block by Dedryck Boyata.
However, the ball fell back to the Cats left-back for an easier chance, only for ex-Middlesbrough stopper David Wheater to fling himself at Richardson’s shot to deny him a certain goal. Sunderland were now showing some much-needed urgency in their play and began to pin Bolton back in their own half with Jack Colback and David Vaughan beginning to pull the strings.
But Bolton still had enough in their locker to hit back and Mignolet had to do well to save from David Ngog’s header.
Sunderland came close in 72 minutes when Vaughan’s quick free-kick released Sessegnon down the right and only the brilliance of Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen kept him out.
From the resulting corner, Connor Wickham should have hit the target with his volley as Larsson’s cross picked him out unmarked inside the box. A minute later, it was Vaughan’s turn to go close as following a goalmouth scramble; Paul Robinson headed his net-bound shot behind. From Larsson’s corner, Vaughan again had a simpler chance after Jaaskelainen’s fumble, but could only blaze the ball over the bar.
Maybe it was going to take a spark of genius to win this game and Wickham almost provided it with 10 minutes left. Finding a gap down the right, the youngster approached the edge of the box and caught Jaaskelainen out with an audacious chip only for the ball to hit the bar.
But at long last, Sunderland’s persistence was rewarded and it was Sessegnon who came up trumps.
Larsson’s inswinging corner resulted in a pile up in the six-yard box before the ball fell back to Sessegnon who rifled it low past the despairing Jaaskelainen.
It looked as if all their hard work might be undone with two minutes left as a lapse in concentration allowed Pratley to sneak into the box only for the more-alert Mignolet to rush out and pull off a fine block. John O’Shea then had to be on hand to nod the ball away to deny Pratley again who was set to pounce with a free header.
But as Bolton piled more men forward in injury-time, Sunderland punished them on the counter-attack when Sessegnon broke clear through the middle before sliding the ball to Nicklas Bendter to coolly slot home past Jaaskelainen.
It was no more than Sunderland deserved.