ONE GOAL and one man in arrears with the match clock showing time up but even that didn't seem likely to deflect Sunderland from their appointment with the Premiership next season. Sure enough, up popped Niall Quinn in injury time to head past Ludek Miklosko and snatch a point earned more on effort and endeavour rather than inspiration and imagination.
Sunderland's manager Peter Reid does not hesitate to refer back to their bitter play-off final defeat at Wembley against Charlton last May as the origin of their fighting spirit. But he added a new twist when he revealed after this draw that they picked themselves up and prepared for their renewed attempt at promotion when they were on the road back home.
Reid said: "The spirit we have now comes from when we left Wembley, and stopped off at a service station, somewhere near Peterborough I think. I was so drunk I can't remember accurately." But in the unlikely surroundings of Cambridgeshire, the collective wish not to go through that Wembley torment again was born.
The Wearsiders are now top of the First Division by nine points, an advantage that increased over the weekend courtesy of this draw as Ipswich, who started off on Saturday in second place, then lost to Grimsby. And in a testament to the squad Reid has assembled, Sunderland have achieved this despite being without two of their most influential players for most of the season. Lee Clark, who broke his leg back in August, has only just returned to the midfield, while Kevin Phillips returned in some style on Saturday after a four-month absence through injury.
Any fears that the revelation of last season had lost the touch that brought him 29 league goals were allayed with just over half-an-hour gone when he latched on to Gavin McCann's cross to score with a full volley inside the penalty box, despite having a defender on his back and the fact he was facing away from goal. Suddenly Phillips' goal had made all the extra waiting worthwhile as the kick-off had been delayed 15 minutes, due to Sunderland's massive travelling support.
Yet QPR showed they have turned over a new leaf since Gerry Francis took over as manager in October. Back then they were bottom of the table with nine points and seemingly destined for relegation but despite having no spending money, he has turned a lame duck of a team into something less ready for the kill, as six wins in their last 12 games have proved.
Francis surprised Sunderland by starting with three strikers and gave them several problems by opting for a physical approach and they deserved their equaliser, Danny Maddix heading in from Ian Baraclough's corner.
That was just the start of Sunderland's problems as Kevin Ball, never a shrinking violet, was sent off on the stroke of half-time for a late tackle on Baraclough and it took QPR only seven second-half minutes to profit against a Sunderland side in disarray, as Gallen tapped in Iain Dowie's knock-back. But memories of Wembley and of Peterborough started to flood back, leading to Quinn's inevitable equaliser.
Goals: Phillips (33) 0-1; Maddix (44) 1-1; Gallen (52) 2-1; Quinn (90) 2-2.
Queen's Park Rangers: (3-4-3) Miklosko; Ready, Maddix, Morrow; Heinola, Rose, Peacock, Baraclough; Gallen, Dowie, Kiwomya. Substitutes not used: Rowland, Murray, Slade.
Sunderland: (4-4-2) Sorenson; Williams (Smith, 73), Melville, Butler, Makin; Ball, Clark, McCann (Bridges, 73), Rae; Quinn, Phillips. Substitute not used: Craddock. Referee: S Mathieson (Stockport).
Bookings: QPR: Ready; Sunderland: Williams. Sending-off: Sunderland: Ball. Man of the match: Quinn.
Attendance: 17,444.Reuse content