A late intervention from Kenwyne Jones ensured that Stewart Downing's first steps on the road to redemption were at best faltering ones.
Sunderland finally threw off the shackles after 80 stupefying minutes lacking any semblance of ambition to ensure a share of the spoils which would have been transformed into all three points had Adam Johnson not cleared off the line from Carlos Edwards as injury time approached.
Downing was instrumental for the first hour during which he teed up the opener for Afonso Alves. There after, like the rest of the Middlesbrough team, he became something of a peripheral figure as Sunderland, buoyed by the introduction of Andy Reid and David Healy, finished by far the stronger to earn a merited point to continue their modest upward curve under Ricky Sbragia.
Sunderland's influential substitutes combined to provide the 82nd-minute equaliser for Jones, who swept home Healy's inviting low cross from close range after Reid's perceptive throughball released the Northern Ireland international.
Barrow remain the only side Middlesbrough have beaten in 10 games. Their hopes of rectifying that damning statistic took a significant blow when they lost their impetus as midfield duo Josh Walker and Didier Digard went off injured during the second half after robust challenges that Gareth Southgate was not happy with. "They were both poor," he said.
The Middlesbrough manager could at least reflect on his side's first league goal in nearly a month. At the end of a largely disappointing first half, Alves belied a supposed lack of confidence to beat Marton Fulop with a first-time finish from 15 yards for his third goal in two games after an incisive exchange with Downing, who responded positively to the surprisingly cordial reception from the home support in the wake of his attempts to engineer a £14.5m move to Tottenham Hotspur.
"Stewart knows we've had bids from Tottenham because that's the way they work," added Southgate, in a dig at the attempts by the London club to lure the Middlesbrough player.
In Tottenham's defence, Downing cannot be described as playing hard to get, but for the time being an uneasy truce appears to have been struck. Many see a parting of the ways in the summer as inevitable, and are baffled by Middlesbrough's refusal to pocket such a handsome amount for a player still dogged by inconsistency.
Yesterday, however, was one of Downing's good days, and Southgate said: "Stewart was excellent. He got a brilliant response from the supporters which gave him a lift and he produced a performance which showed why it's so important to keep him."
Reflecting on what he described as "an unbelievably long week" during which Downing accused the club of lacking ambition, Southgate said: "Stewart never actually handed his transfer request in, he came in to see me, we had a long chat on Monday.
"I'm not going to knock him. He's ambitious and there's a frustration from all of us that we can't throw more money in than we have, but that's the reality for a lot of clubs. At least we're in a position where we don't have to sell and that's what we've decided to do. There's nothing going to happen now, what happens in the future happens, it's difficult to look too far ahead."
Sbragia has no such problems in hanging on to his more valued players, although the hapless El-Hadji Diouf sauntered around looking as if he would much rather be playing for Blackburn Rovers, strong suitors for the forward's signature this month.
"We forced the issue for the last 10 minutes, but a draw's a fair result," the Sunderland manager said. "Maybe the substitutions worked, maybe it was a bit of luck but we've shown we're a decent side."
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Downing
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content