Sunderland 2 Northampton 2 (AET, Sunderland win 4-3 on penalties)
Marton Fulop and Anthony Stokes were Sunderland’s stars as the Barclays Premier League side scraped into the fourth round of the Carling Cup.
League One Northampton looked to be home and dry when Colin Larkin, who had put them ahead after 20 minutes, crossed for the impressive Luke Guttridge to make it 2-0 with nine minutes remaining.
But they had not counted on another late show from the Black Cats as Stokes climbed off the bench to pull a goal back with five minutes to go and then, with his side down to 10 men because of an injury to Nyron Nosworthy, level in the third minute of stoppage-time.
Extra time could not split the sides, and it came down to a test of nerve from 12 yards.
Cobblers skipper Mark Hughes and Stokes both failed, but after Kieran Richardson had converted the Wearsiders’ fifth penalty, Fulop dived to his left to keep out Leon Constantine’s effort to complete an unlikely fightback.
It was harsh on the Cobblers, who dumped Bolton out of the competition in the last round and were perilously close to doing the same to their top flight counterparts tonight.
But for all Sunderland boss Roy Keane will have been delighted with the outcome, what transpired before it will have left him with as many questions as answers.
The red and white faithful headed away from the Stadium of Light on Saturday evening celebrating a derby victory over Middlesbrough and a match-winning return from Michael Chopra following the personal problems which Keane admitted had taken his spark away.
There were more than a few raised eyebrows when the striker was not included in a starting line-up which featured eight changes, although the dead leg he suffered against Boro may have explained his presence only among the substitutes.
But if Chopra had rediscovered his spark, that quality was sadly lacking in the men who did take the field before the break, or at least until Northampton had edged their way in front.
The Cobblers enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges as Sunderland struggled for any kind of coherence, and the opening goal was far from against the run of play.
Constantine’s flick-on fell perfectly for strike-partner Larkin, and his firmly-struck right-foot shot was too good for keeper Marton Fulop.
Only a last-ditch block from Nosworthy denied defender Jason Crowe a free strike at goal eight minutes later, and the home fans were less than impressed.
But it was then that the Black Cats finally managed to find their feet, and but for the excellence of keeper Frank Fielding, they would have been at least back on terms by the time the first half drew to a close.
He dived full-length to claw away David Healy’s flicked 33rd-minute header, then denied captain Dean Whitehead in the final minute of the half – after Andy Reid and Grant Leadbitter had gone close.
Keane, never afraid to make changes, did just that at the break when he hauled Carlos Edwards and Healy off and replaced them with Richardson and, to the delight of the fans, Chopra.
However, Northampton came close to a second goal with 57 minutes gone when Constantine controlled Hughes’ cross into space and then thumped a right-foot shot on the turn straight at Fulop.
The Sunderland goalkeeper was left exposed again six minutes later when Larkin and Constantine combined for the latter to stand the ball up at the far post, but midfielder Andy Holt glanced his header wide.
Keane’s men were making little impression, and Chopra wasted a rare chance when he blazed a 70th-minute free-kick high over.
Their woes increased markedly nine minutes from time when Larkin picked out Guttridge inside the box and he volleyed into the bottom corner.
But Stokes’ 85th-minute close-range effort sparked a late flurry and when, with Fulop up for the final throw of the dice in the final minute of injury-time, the striker headed Reid’s corner in off the underside of the bar, the repair job was complete.