Fate has been kicking Sunderland where it hurts all season, and it did not stop yesterday. At 3-1 they looked to be about to mask a depressing Premiership campaign by reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup, but disappointment has been a consistent companion and, bang on cue, it came back to nag them at Ewood Park.
Even as this thrilling and unpredictable tie went into stoppage time the Wearsiders were just about clinging on, but with a place in the last 16 dangling just in front of them Dwight Yorke struck with seconds remaining. The replay will be at the Stadium of Light on 5 February.
Earlier strikes from Marcus Stewart, Michael Proctor and Kevin Phillips had put Sunderland in a position of command only for the outstanding Andy Cole to get the second of his goals to give Blackburn hope and provide Yorke with the platform for his climactic intervention.
"We looked dead and buried," Graeme Souness, the Blackburn manager, conceded, "but somehow we managed to come back into it. We have been working on our defending, but at times we looked like total strangers out there."
The joke on Wearside is that Sunderland are so incompetent they even failed to lose to Bolton in the third round, when their situation in the Premiership demands that they should be concentrating on avoiding relegation. If so, the players had still not got the message, because they began yesterday's game like it was 1973 revisited.
Just 71 seconds had passed when the Blackburn defence and midfield obligingly stood in admiration as Stewart sped between them, and he was on his own when Proctor's pass from the left was floated his way. From a range of 15 yards it was a free shot at the shy for Stewart, and he duly thumped the ball past the helpless Brad Friedel.
A student of Sunderland this season would tell you that the good rarely lasts, and with the visiting supporters pinching themselves to ensure they were still watching the same mangy Black Cats who had won only one of their previous eight games, Blackburn equalised.
Lucas Neill, playing as an emergency left-back to cover for injuries, galloped down his flank after 14 minutes and found Cole, whose speed had taken him ahead of his marker. The Blackburn striker pushed the ball to the side of Thomas Sorensen and then placed it into the corner.
The first half finished with Blackburn on top, but they surrendered the initiative after the interval as surely as they had at the start of the match. Phillips's 54th minute chip to Kilbane was blocked by Andy Todd, but the ball bounced off him to Proctor, who turned sharply and struck it into the far corner.
Worse was to follow for Blackburn 11 minutes later when a corner was not cleared properly and Jody Craddock, showing a deftness not normally associated with a centre-back, flicked the ball into the six-yard box. There was Phillips, and he rarely misses from that range.
Cue the throwing of the kitchen sink by Blackburn and a climax that belonged to the finest traditions of the competition. First Yorke and Cole combined for the latter to curl his shot past Sorensen after 73 minutes, only for Proctor almost to seal it for the visitors with a shot against the bar in the 90th minute.
The ball eventually came out to Neill, who hoofed it in hope rather than expectation. Yorke was onside and ahead of the Sunderland defenders and he coolly took the ball into the area before slipping it past Sorensen.
Howard Wilkinson, the Sunderland manager, looked aghast, and even the reprieved Souness gave the impression he had been through purgatory. "It might have been good for the neutral," the Blackburn manager said, "but it was awful for myself and Howard."Reuse content