Late surge of emotion lifts O'Neill to dramatic first win
Sunderland 2 Blackburn Rovers 1
He was welcomed on to the pitch with a resounding roar of approval, he left at half-time to a smattering of boos and when finally Martin O'Neill took his leave the home support were so drained of emotion they barely noticed him go.
As an introduction to life as Sunderland manager this victory in the injury-time, having come from behind with two goals in the last six minutes of the game was just about as dramatic as O'Neill could have imagined. It fitted a raw occasion that was shot through with emotion, frustration and, eventually, sheer bloody relief for the home fans, who know it cannot be like this every week.
Sebastian Larsson's brilliant free-kick to win the game in the third minute of added time was a moment of individual inspiration built on a performance stoked up on the sheer adrenaline of a Sunderland team who recognised this was the start of a new era. They trailed Blackburn Rovers to the 84th minute of the game yet there was always a collective will in O'Neill's team that they could not lose to one of the division's most benighted clubs.
Certainly not with a manager on the touchline who was every bit as tense as the home support and who shuddered and twitched with every unfolding moment of this match. He will not always be able to drive his players over the line in this fashion but it will do for now. Yesterday it was enough that he gave the club's fans some hope and bought himself some time to rebuild this team his way.
It gave back, O'Neill said, "in abundance" what he had missed over 16 months out of the game. He conceded that the win, just the fourth at home for Sunderland in the whole of 2011, owed much to the contribution of David Vaughan, who scored with a fiercely-driven volley to draw them level and lift the Stadium of Light for that final, emotional push for the three points.
O'Neill described his first matchday afternoon as manager of his boyhood club as surreal at times and said that not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined winning in such a stirring fashion.
But then these kind of calamities do tend to befall Blackburn and their haunted manager Steve Kean, whose default setting seems to be disaster.
They led from 17 minutes through a header from Simon Vukcevic at the back post after a shot by Chris Samba had been parried by Keiren Westwood. They should really have had a second when referee Peter Walton disallowed Morten Gamst Pedersen's goal from a free-kick. The ball sailed over Westwood's head and in, only for the referee to judge that Samba had fouled John O'Shea.
But that decision alone does not even begin to give a picture of the misfortune that struck Blackburn. Junior Hoilett failed a fitness test yesterday morning, Ruben Rochina was also injured and Kean lost Gaël Givet early on in the game to heart palpitations.
The Blackburn manager's explanation that his player's heartbeat was "out of sync" suggested a deeply worrying condition for a professional athlete.
Martin Olsson took over from Givet halfway through the first half but he had to come off at half-time to be replaced by Adam Henley. Michel Salgado came off with suspected cracked ribs and was replaced by Grant Hanley and by the end of the game, with Jason Lowe carried off with a neck brace on, Rovers were down to 10 men. Lowe's injury looked the most serious of all but Kean said later he was only concussed.
In the meantime, the team conspired to throw away a one-goal lead and what was potentially their first clean sheet of the season. Despite some excellent saves from Paul Robinson, Blackburn have still not achieved a single shut-out in any competition this season. For them, there was a troubling inevitability about Sunderland's breakthrough.
With just Yakubu alone in attack, Blackburn dropped deeper and deeper as they tried to keep Sunderland out. The substitute James McClean, making his debut for Sunderland following his move from Derry City in the summer, made a significant difference after he came on with 14 minutes left. O'Neill had watched him play for the reserves against their Manchester United counterparts on Thursday and judged him ready.
"He wants to go out and please," O'Neill said. "He is young, a bit immature but he was great and the crowd took to it."
But it still required a goal from Sunderland to drag themselves back into it. They had arguably come closest on 19 minutes when a mistake from Lowe presented Kieran Richardson with a prime opportunity which Robinson did well to smother.
There was, as O'Neill conceded, some "frustration and angst" in the crowd of 39,863 ,just 316 of them in the away end.
"I was thinking we had done terrifically and that at some stage we must be due a breakthrough," he said. It came when Henley's header only reached as far as Vaughan. The astute little midfielder drilled it early past Robinson.
With O'Neill leaping and gesticulating on the touchline, the mood turned. It was Mauro Formica who conceded the free-kick on the left side of the Blackburn area that proved decisive. Kean later said that he felt the award was harsh but by then Sunderland were being swept along with the mood. The expectation was that Larsson would strike the ball over and around the far side of the wall but instead he squeezed it in off Robinson's near post.
Cue pandemonium in the stands and a sense of momentum the like of which any new manager would be happy to see. "I have that typical Irish trait of saying 'There's many a dark day around the corner'," O'Neill said. "I think that's just my upbringing." But for one Sunday afternoon at least, it did not feel that way in the Stadium of Light.
Substitutes: Sunderland McClean (Colback, 76)
Ji (Wickham, 76). Blackburn Olsson 4 (Givet, 22), Henley 5 (Olsson, h-t), Hanley 5(Salgado, 51).
Booked: Sunderland O'Shea, Sessegnon. Blackburn
Man of the match Vaughan. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Sunderland 50% Blackburn 50%.
Attempts on target: Sunderland 12 Blackburn 2.
Referee P Walton (Northamptonshire).
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