IF the relief etched on the faces of Gary Megson and his Bolton players was understandable, so was the scowl being sported by Roy Keane.
The Sunderland manager might have been lauded for leading his newly-promoted team to safety following last week’s win over Middlesbrough, but if his players hoped to end the season in party mode, they received the fiercest of reality checks here, with Keane lambasting their attitude in allowing Bolton to secure their own status.
Not that Megson and his players will care. Wanderers deserve recognition for their efforts in having rescued their apparently calamitous position of just four weeks ago when they lay four points adrift and apparently destined to fall after seven seasons in the top-flight.
Three victories and a draw have transformed their situation and they can now travel to Chelsea next Sunday knowing only an unprecedented eleven-goal swing in goal difference can push them back into the bottom three.
There was, however, something hollow about the sight of a group of players marking the success of finishing out of the bottom three just 12 months after they had performed a similar lap of honour to acknowledge qualifying for the UEFA Cup for only the second time in the club’s history.
Such are the margins for error in football, particularly at a club that has suffered from spectacular mis-management right from the moment chairman Phil Gartside’s petulant falling-out with Sam Allardyce triggered the unravelling of years of steady progress and where expectations have been abruptly down-sized.
It is not a situation you could ever imagine Keane tolerating. Seven days on from their own survival carnival, they were over-powered by a commendably honest but terribly laboured Bolton side who were fortunate that, in El-Hadji Diouf, they possessed not only a player of outstanding skill, but also one who was determined to mark his final game at the Reebok stadium in style.
Keane’s furious reaction after the game made it clear that some of his own players will be bidding their own farewells during next weekend’s visit of Arsenal.
The manager, of course, recognises the reality of what a club emerging from the Championship can achieve but it is the acceptance of a job having been done that clearly rankles. The plain fact is too many Sunderland players made the mistake of going through the motions while Bolton fought tooth and nail for three points.
“We got safe last week,” said Keane. “But that was last week. Do we celebrate all summer? Do we celebrate again next week? I remember a few years ago when Everton stayed up on the last day of the season and everyone was out celebrating and players were out on the pitch and crying. You’re just thinking: ‘That’s Everton Football Club.’
“I don’t want that. I don’t want us next week, walking out on the pitch accepting supporters’ applause for survival. I want to think bigger than that. Maybe in the summer when I’m sitting on a beach somewhere, I might look back and say that was a decent season and the players have done remarkably well.
“But I just don’t think survival is a time to celebrate. We have lost 22 games and I can tell you when I am on my holidays I’ll be thinking about those 22 defeats. I won’t remember the victories, and I’ve always been that way. I must be a naturally miserable person.
“I could make at least seven or eight changes in the summer. Obviously it will be quite easy in some areas. We have got four or five players whose contracts are up. It is quite easy enough in terms of just not renewing their contracts.
“But I really haven’t got a problem with getting rid of people who have got three or four years left on their contracts, if players think they have got that to fall back on. We will give them a few bob to go, it is not a problem. You pay them to come, you pay them to go. It is simple.”
Diouf, who repeated his intention to leave Bolton this summer after the game, conjured the game’s decisive moment when he finished expertly past Craig Gordon three minutes before the break just when home nerves were beginning to jangle.
Keane responded with a triple substitution on the hour but it was one of those replacements, Daryl Murphy, who finally ended Bolton’s agonies by unwittingly heading Matt Taylor’s corner into his own goal with eight minutes remaining.
BOLTON (4-5-1): Al Habsi 6, Steinsson 7, Cahill 7, A O’Brien 7, Samuel 5, Diouf 9, Nolan 6, McCann 7, Guthrie 6, Taylor 6, Davies 8.
Subs Not Used: Walker, Meite, Stelios, Cohen, Rasiak.
SUNDERLAND (4-4-2): Gordon 6, Nosworthy 5 (Leadbitter 61, 5), Evans 7, Higginbotham 6, Collins 7, Miller 5 (O’Donovan 61, 7), Whitehead 7, Richardson 4 , Reid 5, Chopra 5 (Murphy 61, 5), Jones 6.
Subs Not Used: Fulop, Yorke.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (Yorkshire) 7: A desperate Bolton side in full flow is a challenge for any referee but the match official handled the game impeccably and correctly spotted the home side’s second goal had crossed the line.
MATCH RATING: * Tension, determination and resolve only go so far towards making a decent game and Bolton — Diouf apart — lacked the ability to truly punish Sunderland’s lacklustre performance.
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