Bolton 2 Sunderland 0
El-Hadji Diouf delivered the perfect farewell present to Bolton with a superb first-half strike to inspire a victory which has all but preserved the club’s Barclays Premier League status.
The controversial Senegal striker – who recently declared he will quit the Trotters in the summer regardless of whether they survive in the top flight - fired home right-footed after collecting a deep cross from skipper Kevin Nolan in the 42nd minute.
Sunderland substitute Daryl Murphy headed into his own goal with eight minutes remaining to secure a win which could be valued at around £50m – the price of Premier League status – and left manager Gary Megson punching the air in delight.
Diouf’s commitment to the team was brought into question by his own team-mates several weeks ago as Megson’s side slid into the relegation zone.
There can be no complaints after this display, however, and the Trotters crowd favourite was left to milk the applause at the end of what looks certain to prove his final appearance at the Reebok Stadium as a Bolton player.
Megson himself deserves immense credit, of course, as the club that Sam Allardyce built were bottom of the Premier League with a pitiful five points from their opening 10 games when he was appointed last October.
Megson’s men have hit form at just the right time and this was their third win from their last four games.
They were given a massive boost prior to kick-off when news filtered through of Fulham’s 2-0 win over Birmingham and Reading’s 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Tottenham.
Thus Bolton knew victory over Sunderland would move them three points clear of the relegation zone with only one game remaining.
Given their superior goal difference over third-bottom Reading, the Trotters would now need to lose heavily at Chelsea next Sunday while Steve Coppell’s men would be required to win heavily at rock-bottom Derby in order to see the sides swap places.
Sunderland, for their part, arrived in Lancashire safe from relegation – and it showed.
Roy Keane’s men could not match Bolton’s ceaseless drive and commitment, yet genuine goalscoring opportunities remained scarce throughout on a tense evening.
Not surprisingly, Bolton’s most potent threat came from set-pieces and long punts up to striker Kevin Davies, back in the side after serving a two-match ban.
One such delivery was typically flicked on by Davies in the 13th minute and appeared to be blocked by Sunderland defender Jonny Evans’ arm.
Referee Martin Atkinson ignored the home claims for a penalty but the Trotters began to steadily build momentum.
Bolton continued to enjoy success down Sunderland’s left flank and in the 28th minute a delightful cross from Diouf found Davies unmarked at the far post.
Davies flexed his neck muscles to connect firmly but he could not control his header and the ball flew over Craig Gordon’s crossbar.
There was a scare for Bolton two minutes later when Kenwyne Jones collected possession on the left side of the home penalty area.
He showed no little strength to hold off the challenge of Gretar Steinsson and engineer the space to drill in a low right-foot shot from 16 yards which flew straight into Ali Al Habsi’s midriff.
But the momentum remained with the hosts and Diouf was clearly determined to sign off in style.
In the 32nd minute, he gave Trotters fans a reminder of what they will be missing next season with a superb run and neat pass to slip in Steinsson down the right flank.
Steinsson’s cross was wayward but three minutes before the interval the breakthrough arrived in stunning fashion.
Nolan collected possession on the right flank and steadied himself before flighting over an inch-perfect cross to Diouf, unmarked at the far post just six yards from goal.
Diouf controlled the ball expertly with his first touch and his second was lethal as he sidefooted the ball past Gordon and into the roof of the net.
Bolton remained largely dominant after the restart and they fashioned a clear-cut opening when Matthew Taylor crossed from the left and Diouf saw his diving header deflected for a corner by Danny Collins.
Keane had seen enough by the hour mark and made a triple substitution which almost reaped dividends in the 70th minute.
Roy O’Donovan, one of Keane’s substitutes, headed Andy Reid’s deep cross straight into Jones’ path but he could not connect with the goal at his mercy.
However, Bolton put the result beyond doubt eight minutes from time as Murphy’s flicked header from a home corner flew past Gordon and although Reid hacked the ball off the line, the goal was rightly given.