Fejiri Okenabirhie scored an equaliser in injury time to earn Doncaster Rovers a point against Sunderland in League One.
Grant Leadbitter’s piledriver looked set to be the difference as Phil Parkinson’s side, who headed into the match on a three-game losing run in all competitions, dominated for most of the match.
But Doncaster kept battling to the end and found an unlikely leveller at the death as Okenabirhie bundled in a Brad Halliday cross.
Story of the match
Sunderland made an indifferent start and struggled to threaten as Doncaster, refreshed after an 11-day break and with manager Darren Moore back in the dugout after a period of self-isolation, made the better start without finding a way to play around the Black Cats defence.
Slowly things began to fall into place for the visitors as the first half progressed, with captain Bailey Wright heading their first chance over and Chris Maguire, restored to the attack in favour of Will Grigg, having two speculative efforts. They also had a strong penalty shout when Joe Wright came across Lynden Gooch forcefully, but the referee showed no interest.
The pressure really ramped up once they started to find Gooch and Maguire, as well as their wing-backs, in promising wide positions. Tom Flanagan missed a big chance from a Gooch cross and Charlie Wyke was denied by goalkeeper Joe Lumley after a great first touch, but when the breakthrough came it would require spectacular means.
Leadbitter received the ball 25 yards from goal and, in the absence of any Doncaster pressure, decided to have a go. It proved a very good idea, as an exceptional rocket of a shot was blasted into the top corner past Lumley, who could do nothing to keep it out on his debut as an emergency loan signing from Queens Park Rangers.
Only in first-half injury time did Doncaster register their first shot of the game, but they were more threatening after the break with Jason Lokilo volleying a decent chance wide and Fejiri Okenabirhie having two efforts kept out.
Sunderland recovered some control though and, while Gooch worked two more efforts for himself which were denied by Lumley and Joe Wright, Rovers could do little at the other end to break down a deep, stubborn rearguard.
With the game on a knife-edge both sides waited late to make substitutions, and it looked like Doncaster would fail to find any way through until, out of the blue, came the leveller in added time. Halliday made a great run into the box and delivered a ball which the defence failed to deal with, allowing Okenabirhie to bundle in from close range and claim a share of the spoils.
Sunderland so close
It will be deeply frustrating point for Sunderland, not least because they did many things very well to put themselves in a position to win the match.
They respected the quality of their opponents, who are chasing a top-six place themselves, and particularly their star man Ben Whiteman, who was given no time or space to have his usual influence on games from the base of midfield.
His marking out of the game neutered Doncaster’s attacking weapons, and if it weren’t for one final, decisive slip-up at the death, Parkinson would have been able to reflect on a well-executed gameplan and a well-earned clean sheet.
The defensive tactics looked set to do the trick in the second half too, dropping deeper when Doncaster kept possession and proving very difficult to break down, with the home side not really having a single big chance of note until the one that counted.
They did seem to tire in those closing stages though and Parkinson didn’t make any changes until the final 10 minutes, despite now having five swaps at his disposal. Those ailing legs may have contributed to them being outmanoeuvred right at the death.
Doncaster may not have been at their best, but to claim a point in those circumstances – against one of the division’s best sides – is another positive sign for a side who have shown their abilities at the Keepmoat Stadium already this season with the scalps of both Ipswich Town and Lincoln City.
With their chief creator finding himself constrained, they struggled to find other outlets, with neither Lokilo on the right nor Josh Sims on the left able to create any real threat on the flanks and stretch a very organised Sunderland side.
The introduction of Taylor Richards in the second half helped to shift the balance in their direction a little, but they still seriously struggled to break the Black Cats down. With Jon Taylor and loanees Rayhaan Tulloch and Tyreece John-Jules all injured, Moore had few other players he felt he could call upon from the bench.
James Coppinger also arrived late on but it was a case of simply keeping on going. The result may have been somewhat fortunate in the end, albeit earned by good skill and a good finish, but it reflected some very tangible qualities in this resilient, hard-working team.
Man of the match: Grant Leadbitter (Sunderland)
An experienced head and controlling presence in the Sunderland midfield alongside Josh Scowen, and between them Doncaster were never able to really establish any foothold in the game. And, of course, his goal was a true beauty.