Late drama for O'Neill's Black Cats
Sebastian Larsson fired Sunderland to a last-gasp 2-1 victory over Blackburn to launch Martin O'Neill's reign as manager in style.
The Swede curled home an injury-time free-kick off the foot of the post eight minutes after David Vaughan had dragged the Black Cats back into a game they looked destined to lose with a stunning 30-yard piledriver. Simon Vukcevic's 17th-minute opener had put the visitors in the driving seat.
Steve Kean's men also had a second goal ruled out for a foul by Chris Samba on keeper Keiren Westwood, but eventually succumbed as the home side improved markedly after a poor first half. It was just Sunderland's fourth home win in 2011 and their second over Blackburn, and just what the bulk of a crowd of 39,863 had turned up to see.
O'Neill gambled on the fitness of young striker Connor Wickham in his return from a knee ligament injury and Sunderland started brightly enough as full-back Phil Bardsley saw a third-minute shot deflected wide by Chris Samba and then had another effort blocked by Jason Lowe three minutes later.
However, it was Rovers who took the lead and they did so with the help of some woeful defending by the Black Cats. Morten Gamst Pedersen's driven free-kick was somehow allowed to reach Samba on the edge of the penalty area and after he had controlled deftly, he drilled a deflected right-foot shot across Westwood.
The Republic of Ireland international could only palm the ball away and midfielder Vukcevic, playing in a protective face mask, headed into the empty net.
The Black Cats might have found themselves further behind four minutes before the break when Westwood failed to collect another Pedersen free-kick and Scott Dann headed home, only for referee Peter Walton to rule that the keeper had been impeded by Samba.
Sunderland started the second half brightly and went close with 54 minutes gone when Richardson's inswinging corner hit the near post with nobody close enough to capitalise on the rebound. Rovers gradually eased their way back into the game as an attacking force, having seemed largely content to soak up pressure.
However, Paul Robinson had to pull off a fine 65th-minute save to keep out Richardson's volley after it took a wicked deflection off Pedersen. But Vaughan gave Sunderland hope with six minutes remaining when he ran on to a loose ball and blasted home from distance with Robinson helpless.
The keeper was equally powerless to deny Sunderland victory when, two minutes into injury time, Larsson curled his free-kick over the wall and in off the foot of the post to snatch a much-needed victory, although an injury which saw Jason Lowe carried off on a stretcher delayed the celebrations.