Midway though the second half an advertisement appeared on the screen in the corner of the Reebok Stadium. "Two Hundred Goals" it read, promoting a DVD on sale in the Bolton Wanderers shop.
Never mind a double century of goals, just one would have been welcome in this match, but such was the poverty of the performances by both teams you feared the game could have gone on for 200 years and it would still have been a stalemate. Often clashes between sides fearful for their existence in the Premier League can be high on incident but this was not one of them. The first accurate attempt on goal came in the 93rd minute, passes were more miss than hit, and both sets of supporters spent time urging the teams to attack. The tension was that intrusive.
Only at the end did the pressure relent and the teams could reflect on a result that probably suits both of them. It pushed Bolton to the 40-point mark that almost certainly guarantees them top-flight football next season while Sunderland inched nearer to safety although they may yet rue they did not capitalise more fully on a match, which in terms of territory at least, they had the upper hand. Kieran Richardson, alone, could have had a hat-trick but was wide or high with all of his efforts.
"I take it as a good point," Ricky Sbragia, the Sunderland manager, said. "We haven't been playing particularly well away from home but today we expressed ourselves a little better. We created some chances which has been missing in recent weeks. The formation suited us better, the players who came in did well and we could have won it. We could have lost it, too, in the last minute."
Gary Megson, the Bolton manager, was also satisfied with the result if not the performance. "Going on the first half it was an undeserved point," he said, "because we got battered. In the second half we were more like Bolton Wanderers. We have to play for the full 90 minutes."
As Megson intimated, Bolton began at a slow tempo, just as they had in their previous two matches against Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic. Sunderland, driven by the potential peril at the wrong end of the table, had the greater urgency and created the first half chance when Steed Malbranque's mis-hit almost turned into a pass to Kenwyne Jones after 10 minutes. Richardson began his sequence of misses and Gretar Steinsson hooked a shot wide for Bolton but these had been glimpses of opportunities, the bona fide chance came after 23 minutes when Sunderland sliced through Bolton's right flank, Steed Malbranque crossed and Jones teed up Richardson with a deft lay-off. The least the former Manchester United midfielder should have done was ensure Jussi Jaaskelainen had to make a save but his cool disappeared over Winter Hill before his shot sailed over the bar.
This presaged a period of Sunderland dominance so pronounced the Bolton supporters began to level abuse at the home players. The effect was to make them more inhibited and Richardson fired off another shot after 36 minutes that was still too high but a lot closer than his earlier effort.
After the interval Megson plugged the hole that Richardson was slipping through by dropping Fabrice Muamba into a position just in front of the back four but as the match reached stoppage time the closest either team had come to scoring was in the 83rd minute when Jaaskelainen had used his boot to clear a fierce cross from the right from substitute Djibril Cissé.
Then, just when it appeared that no effort was going to be on target, a scramble in the Sunderland area culminated in Gary Cahill heading for the corner of the net. Martin Fulop would have been forgiven for making a hash of his save out of shock but he leapt to his right and tipped the ball round the post. Megson described the stop as "fantastic" and Sbragia concurred. "We would have been gutted if we had lost the game," he said, "but Martin made a magnificent save."
Would Sbragia be studying the match between relegation rivals Newcastle United and Middlesbrough tomorrow night? "Not at all, I'll be down the pub," he replied. "I'd be tearing my hair out if I watched that."
Referee: Rob Styles
Man of the match: Malbranque
Match rating: 3/10Reuse content