Martin O'Neill jumping for joy at Sunderland comeback
Sunderland 2 Blackburn Rovers 1: He was welcomed onto the pitch with a resounding roar of approval, he left at half-time to a smattering of boos and, when finally Martin O'Neill took his leave, the home support were so drained of emotion, they barely noticed him go.
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As an introduction to life as Sunderland manager, this victory in injury-time — having come from behind with two goals in the last six minutes of the game — was just about as dramatic as O'Neill could have imagined. It fitted a raw occasion that was shot through with emotion, frustration and, eventually, sheer bloody relief for the home fans, who know it cannot be like this every week.
Sebastian Larsson's brilliant free-kick to win the game in the 93rd minute was a moment of individual inspiration built on a performance stoked up on the sheer adrenaline of a Sunderland team who recognised this was the start of a new era.
It gave back, O'Neill said, “in abundance” what he had missed over 16 months out the game. He conceded that the win, just the fourth at home for Sunderland in the whole of 2010, owed much to the contribution of David Vaughan who scored with a fiercely-driven volley to draw Sunderland level and lift the Stadium of Light for that final, emotional push for the three points.
Blackburn led from 17 minutes through a header from Simon Vukcevic at the back post after a shot by Chris Samba had been parried by Keiren Westwood. They should really have had a second when referee Peter Walton disallowed Morten Gamst Pedersen's goal from a free-kick that sailed over the head of Westwood, having judged that Samba had fouled John O'Shea.
But that decision alone does not even begin to give a picture of the misfortune that struck Blackburn. Junior Hoilett failed a fitness test yesterday morning, Ruben Rochina was also injured and Steve Kean lost Gael Givet early on in the game to heart palpitations. The Blackburn manager's explanation that his player's heart beat was “out of sync” suggested a deeply worrying condition for a professional athlete.
Martin Olsson replaced Givet halfway through the first half but he had to come off at half-time to be replaced by Adam Henley. Michel Salgado came off with suspected cracked ribs and was replaced by Grant Hanley and, by the end of the game, with Jason Lowe stretchered off with a neck brace on, Rovers were down to ten men. Lowe's injury looked the most serious of all but Kean said later he was only concussed.
Substitute James McClean, making his debut for Sunderland following his move from Derry City in the summer, made a significant difference after he came on with 14 minutes left. O'Neill had watched him play for the reserves against their Manchester United counterparts on Thursday and judged him ready.
“He wants to go out and please,” O'Neill said. “He is young, a bit immature but he was great and the crowd took to it.”
There was, as O'Neill conceded, some “frustration and angst” in the crowd of 39,863 — just 319 of them in the away end. “I was thinking we had done terrifically and that at some stage we must be due a breakthrough,” he said. It came when Henley's header only reached as far as Vaughan and this astute little midfielder drilled it early past Robinson.
With O'Neill leaping and gesticulating on the touchline, the mood turned. It was Mauro Formica who conceded the free-kick on the left side of the Blackburn area that proved decisive. The expectation was that Larsson (pictured) would strike the ball over and around the far side of the wall but instead he squeezed it in off Robinson's near post.
Cue pandemonium in the stands and a sense of momentum the like of which any new manager would be glad.