Sunderland 0 Blackburn Rovers 0
Thomas Sorensen returned from injury to help Sunderland snatch a precious Premiership point by holding Blackburn in a gritty battle.
The Dane, who had missed 16 matches with a dislocated elbow, saved superbly from Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole to preserve his clean sheet – the first time his side has done so in seven attempts – and play his part in ending a run of three successive Premiership defeats.
And it could have been even better for the Wearsiders, who saw Jody Craddock’s 69th-minute shot come back off the foot of the post on an afternoon when they created few clear-cut chances in front of just 36,529 spectators.
It was never pretty and at times it was truly awful, but manager Howard Wilkinson, currently attempting to deal with a crippling injury list, will console himself with the fact that his side finally walked off a pitch with something to show for their efforts after a run of league games which have turned cruelly against them.
The Black Cats never really gained the upper hand until late in the day and Rovers will feel they should have had the game wrapped up long before the final whistle, but it is a start for Sunderland, and one upon which they must build sooner rather than later if they are to drag themselves out of trouble.
They have reached the stage in a troubled season where results are far more important than performances, and it was that thought and that thought alone with which the home fans could comfort themselves at the break.
Having lost their last three Premiership games and not won in all competitions in five, it was imperative that Wilkinson’s men got some reward for their efforts against Blackburn, and as they left the pitch at the break, they were still level and had everything to play for.
However, the manager welcomed his players back into the dressing room acutely aware that they had not mustered a single genuine attempt on goal and knowing equally well that Rovers, but for wayward finishing and the last-ditch efforts of defenders George McCartney and Craddock, could have been comfortably ahead.
The Wearsiders started brightly enough as skipper for the day Kevin Phillips and strike partner Tore Andre Flo put the visitors’ defence under early pressure.
But the service to the frontmen soon dried up, and although Phillips squandered a golden opportunity 12 minutes before the break when he miskicked in front of goal, there was little for the red and white faithful to cheer.
Former Newcastle striker Cole should have put Blackburn ahead with 14 minutes gone after Phil Babb could only clear Damien Duff’s cross to him 12 yards out, but he blasted painfully wide with only Sorensen, back from a 16-game lay-off with a dislocated shoulder, to beat.
Lively midfielder David Thompson – one of four men to be booked inside the first 45 minutes – had a glancing header cleared by McCartney and Yorke shot high over after being set up by Duff and Cole, and the Republic of Ireland international saw his low drive blocked by Craddock as the visitors pressed.
After a scrappy start to the second-half, it was Rovers who again took control, Tugay blasting wide from distance after Gavin McCann had only half-cleared Cole’s cross and Yorke forcing an improvised save from Sorensen, who got the reward for his bravery when the striker’s powerfully-struck effort cannoned back off his chest.
The Dane distinguished himself once again with 62 minutes gone when he pulled off a fine one-handed save from Cole’s close-range header.
However, with crowd favourite Julio Arca having replaced John Oster, the home side at last had a credible threat down the left, and the Argentinian was heavily involved as the Black Cats went agonisingly close to taking the lead.
His 69th-minute corner eventually fell to McCann at the far post, and when he prodded it back into the danger area, Craddock smashed a shot against the foot of the post.
Yorke should have put his side ahead with 15 minutes remaining when he connected with substitute Alan Mahon’s cross but hit his shot into the ground and over the bar, but Sunderland midfielder Paul Thirlwell was guilty of just as bad a miss four minutes later when he failed to connect with Tore Andre Flo’s cross in front of goal.
Phillips and Arca both passed up late opportunities to snatch victory as substitute Keith Gillespie turned up in the right place at the right time to help out his defenders, and although the home side finished strongly, there was to be no dramatic conclusion.