A combination of Kieran Richardson's first Sunderland goal, Kenwyne Jones's fifth, some manic late defending and then a breakaway third from substitute Daryl Murphy brought Sunderland the sweet release of victory for only the second time in 14 matches stretching back to September. That bleak run has taken Roy Keane's struggling side into the relegation zone but this win, the first time Sunderland have scored three this season, edged them out of it.
The upwards movement and the result eases Wearside's anxiety. It is tangible on and off the pitch; the frantic last 15 minutes illustrated why a win was so necessary. Sunderland, revealing inexperience as well as poor touches, simply could not hold on to the ball as Bolton staged a belated siege of the home half.
But, tellingly on a day when Nicolas Anelka was as quiet as a rumour, there were no strikes on target from Bolton in that period, even if their territorial domination was constant. Murphy's injury-time drive through the legs of Jussi Jaaskelainen burst the tension and Keane punched the air as the ball hit the net. He had described the game beforehand as "must-win", and hishindsight view was no different.
"It's nice to win, we just about ground it out," Keane said. "But sometimes we've played better than that this season and not won. We've had to win the game twice because two or three minutes before half-time we conceded a sloppy free-kick. So they go in lifted, we go in fed up. The players had to go out and win the game again."
In terms of the table and morale, the three points were vital, but also because of the increased credibility they confer in January's transfer window.
Keane lamented his players' inability to retain possession when under pressure and mentioned the need for more "streetwise" players at the club. Keane refused to name names but Celtic's Bobo Bald, Reading's Stephen Hunt and Blackburn's Robbie Savage are targets. Interest in Savage should add intrigue to Sunderland's trip to Ewood Park on Wednesday.
Like Sunderland, Bolton are yet to win away from home. It felt like a day when Gary Megson needed a big effort from Anelka, but it was Jones who looked hungry. Chelsea's scouts will have taken note.
Jones created Sunderland's opener with a spin away from Joey O'Brien and Abdoulaye Mt in the 12th minute. Composed on the edge of the Bolton area, Jones had the presence of mind to then slide a pass to Richardson, who was free on the left diagonal of the area.
Richardson, back prem-aturely from injury, had a narrowing angle and Jaaskelainen to beat but his crisp first-time side-foot flew in off the woodwork. There was massive relief at that, and when Jones then headed in a second, Sunderland should have been confident enough to stride through the remaining hour. Jones rose at the near post, above Kevin Davies, to nod in Richardson's inswinging corner. But that run of defeats and occasional draws eats into belief. Sunderland were careless and nervous after Jones's goal and that meant no flow.
Without having to drive themselves, on came Bolton. Four minutes before the interval a free-kick won 25 yards out was taken by El-Hadj Diouf. It was aimed at Kevin Nolan's head near the penalty spot but the Bolton captain, sensing he might not getto it, nudged his marker, Paul McShane. The ball sped over McShane's head as a result and Craig Gordon had no time to react as the ball went in directly.
Bolton upped the tempo after the interval albeit once Jaaskelainen had made a useful save from Richardson but aside from a Diouf shot on the turn on the hour, the ever-growing pressure yielded nothing. Bolton have not won away since Easter.
"I'm disappointed, but then if you give the home team a two-goal start..." Megson said. "Both Sunderland goals came from what we did not do right, not what they did right."
On the never-ending Anelka-Chelsea speculation, Megson added: "It's been going on so long it becomes normal."