CRAIG Gardner’s rocket-propelled equaliser 15 minutes from time was the highlight of a game which turned out to be a fantastic advert for the drama and excitement of the FA Cup.
Just as it was beginning to look like it wasn’t going to be Sunderland’s day, despite a spirited second-half comeback, the ball reached the midfielder on the edge of the Bolton area.
Unmarked, directly facing goal and 20 yards out, Gardner could not have asked for more, and after steadying himself for a fraction of a second he let fly with one of his trademark thunderbolts.
Bolton’s stand-in keeper Andy Lonergan had been in outstanding form all afternoon, making at least three stunning saves to deny the resurgent Black Cats.
But you cannot save what you cannot see.
Gardner told the Gazette: “The keeper caught me in the tunnel afterwards and told me that he didn’t see the ball until it was in the back of the net because I hit it so hard.
“That was nice of him, and I said thanks.”
It was an under-stated verdict on an overwhelming moment for the 5,000 Sunderland fans behind Lonergan’s goal who went as mental as they were entitled to – given that barely half-an-hour earlier the game looked almost beyond them.
Premier League Sunderland had started the game apparently holding all the aces over Championship Bolton, only for the game to threaten one of its shocks.
Martin O’Neill fielded as strong a team as he could do for a competition he wants to do well in and made only three changes to his league side with Stephane Sessegnon injured and Matt Kilgallon and Jack Colback dropping to the bench.
But with Phil Bardsley returning to take the captain’s armband Titus Bramble and David Vaughan starting, Sunderland could hardly have been said to be substantially weakened.
But the game was turned on its head though in the 12th minute with one of the howlers of the season from defender Carlos Cuellar, who had already put Simon Mignolet under pressure with a forceful back pass.
The Belgian keeper did well to control the ball and push it back out to Cuellar, now at Sunderland’s left-hand corner flag, before urging him to launch the ball upfield.
Inexplicably though, the centre-half tried to pass the ball across his own box, which went straight to the feet of Chung-Yong Lee 20 yards out and with Mignolet yet to recover his ground, the Bolton midfielder slotted gleefully into an open goal.
O’Neill was correct in his after-match assessment when he said it took Sunderland a long time to come back from that, and there were some uncharacteristic on-pitch spats between Mignolet and his centre-halves as the pressure told.
Sunderland’s task had been made that much more difficult by the withdrawal of Danny Rose who limped off in the 19th minute with a hamstring strain.
It was clear Sunderland would look to come out purposefully in the second-half and atone for Cuellar’s error but within a couple of minutes of the resumption they were further behind.
A corner from the left was defended solidly enough but only half-cleared and when it was put straight back into the box, Marvin Sordell connected with a deft back-header on the six-yard box which eluded everyone and bobbled over the line to Mignolet’s right.
It was the moment of truth for shell-shocked Sunderland – sink or swim. And they chose to swim.
Initially, their problems seemed to deepen with Cuellar going to ground with a hamstring strain in the 58th minute.
But that allowed a game-changing substitution with the arrival of Connor Wickham, and Sunderland going two strikers up top.
The 19-year-old instantly won a corner with Johnson sweeping in a great cross from the right and Fletcher pulling another fantastic save from Lonergan who tipped over his crossbar.
Sunderland were not to be denied though from the resulting corner, this time put in from the left, with a goalmouth scramble seeing the ball arrive at the feet of Wickham at the far post.
His first shot was blocked by Lonergan but the ball came straight back to the striker who put it away this time with a low shot from six yards out.
It was a lifeline but all of Sunderland’s hard work could have been undone when they gave possession away cheaply and the flag rightly stayed down on Ngog’s sprint upfield, only for Colback to produce a game-saving tackle.
The momentum was with Sunderland, Gardner rifling in a free-kick which Loneergan parried, Colback seeing his follow-up blocked and Johnson clipping an effort over the bar.
It was looking as though Sunderland were never going to beat Lonergan but then came Gardner’s brilliant strike and all of a sudden Bolton had gone from one foot in the next round to clinging on desperately.
Gardner fired a free-kick a yard over the bar, Chung-Yong Lee cleared off his line, Wickham almost glanced a header home which drifted just wide and, in time added on, Bramble nodded a cross from the right into the outside side-netting at the far post.
Bolton hung on to the draw.. Sunderland held on to their cup chances.
And at the final whistle the visiting fans and players saluted each others’ performance.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet 6; Bardsley 5, Cuellar 3 (Wickham 57, 8), Bramble 4, Rose 5 (Colback 20, 7); Johnson 6, Larsson 6, Vaughan 7, Gardner 6, McClean 6; Fletcher 7. Subs not used: Westwood, Kilgallon, McFadden, Campbell.
BOLTON: LONERGAN 9, Riley 6 (Mears 36, 6), Knight 6, Ricketts 6, Alonso 6, Lee 6, Pratley 6, Andrews 6, Petrov 7, Sordell 6 (K Davies 64, 6), N’Gog 5 (Eagles 81, 5). Subs not used: Bogdan, Ream, Spearing, Lester.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Connor Wickham. His arrival turned the game Sunderland’s way, scored one goal and created chaos.
Highlight: Craig Gardner’s stunning smasher of an equaliser sent the 5,000 Sunderland fans behind goal into ecstasy and ensured Sunderland avoided an immediate exit from the FA Cup
Lowlight: Carlos Cuellar’s suicidal pass across the face of his own goal was intercepted and gleefully clipped home by Chung-Yong Lee. One of the howlers of the season.
Scorers: Lee 12, Sordell 47, Wickham 60, Gardner 75.
Bookings: Pratley 80.
Ref: Mike Jones (Chester)