SOMETIMES fortune favours the brave.
Mostly, it simply favours the fortunate.
But when a side has both good character and good luck on its side, it can take some stopping and, on Saturday at the Reebok, Sunderland had each in abundance.
The key, though, was character.
It would have been all too easy for Sunderland’s players to shirk the challenge – obvious excuses and easy way-outs presented themselves everywhere you looked.
They were a side without strikers – an injury-ravaged squad that had picked up a further three injuries to first-team players last week. They were out of form, having won only one of their last 11 games. Poor on the road, too – without a win since January.
And the side which took the field on Saturday could hardly have looked more patched up – a winger as lone striker, a right-back behind him in support and, in midfield, rarely-used 34-year-old veteran Bolo Zenden alongside Premier League rookie Jack Colback.
They were up against an eighth-placed Bolton Wanderers, who had improved their already excellent home record thanks to five wins in a row at the Reebok going into Saturday.
On top of that, Bolton boss Owen Coyle was able to welcome back four key players in Jussi Jaaskelainen, Gretar Steinsson, Fabrice Muamba and on-loan Daniel Sturridge – scorer of seven goals in nine appearances.
The odds were stacked against Sunderland from the start. They simply refused to accept them.
From the first whistle, they played the better football and, in the opening 10 minutes, forced corners, throw-ins and free-kicks with their positive play.
The fear was that without their strikers Sunderland would simply buzz without a sting; weaving pretty patterns without effect before being floored by an opponent whose style was laboured but lethal.
Those fears looked justified in the 10th minute when lacklustre Bolton suddenly sprang into life.
The ball reached dangerman Kevin Davies in the penalty area and he smartly slipped it to the unmarked Matt Taylor, on his left, whose fierce goalbound shot was beaten out by the legs of advancing keeper Simon Mignolet.
Sunderland shrugged off that incident and, after a penalty appeal was turned down in the 12th minute when Ahmed Elmohamady was blocked off by Zat Knight – a spot-kick would have been harsh on Bolton – the Black Cats continued to enjoy the upper hand.
They just struggled to make it count.
Phil Bardsley had Sunderland’s best chance of the first half-hour – six yards out when he headed Jordan Henderson’s free-kick from the right over the crossbar at the near post.
But Bolton, who were playing by now like the away team – looking to hit Sunderland on the break – still looked by far the more dangerous side in front of goal.
In the 26th minute, they went desperately close again – this time a long ball reached Sturridge on the left and he did well to get a powerful left foot shot on target, only for John Mensah to do even better and charge the shot down at close range.
Sunderland had dug in by now and were playing controlled, intelligent football, but they were tested again in the 38th minute when the second of three Bolton corners in quick succession saw the ball drop to Sturridge and he curled in a shot from 17 yards which clipped the back of Bardsley’s head and crashed out off the bar.
Half-time approached with Mignolet once again making a vital intervention when Taylor saw his opportunity and drove in an awkward, long-range shot which the keeper blocked and the focused Anton Ferdinand – Michael Turner’s able replacement on the day – hurriedly cleared.
Sunderland had done enough to deserve to go into the break on level terms and they would no doubt have welcomed that, but they got a massive bonus in time added on when they took the lead on the break.
The goal had everything to do with good fortune, for the officials inexplicably failed to spot a Steed Malbranque handball on the edge of the visitors’ area or penalise his subsequent foul of Chung-Yong Lee just outside the 18-yard box – maybe it was in recognition of the Belgian making his 100th Sunderland appearance.
Whatever it was, the failings allowed Sunderland to retain possession and find Stephane Sessegnon in midfield and the Benin international clipped a delicious ball forward to Zenden, level with the home defence, who sprinted goalwards.
Perhaps sprinted is the wrong word – Zenden has no pace and for a few seconds it looked almost as if he was running backwards as he made ground towards Bolton’s goal with the home defence in hot pursuit.
There is absolutely nothing lacking though in the Dutch master’s football brain or technique and he made the right decision in taking the ball around Jaaseklainen, moving right of goal, before steering a low shot home at the near post with his weaker right foot.
It was Sunderland’s first goal on their travels in almost 450 minutes.
And it was the perfect time to score – the Black Cats going into the break on a high, Bolton players still shaking their heads in disbelief that they hadn’t been awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position.
It gave Sunderland something to hang on to in the second half but, with the Wearsiders having conceded more goals from winning positions than any other Premier League team this season, they could not afford to relax.
To their credit, Sunderland did not sit back and, in the 50th minute ,Sessegnon, a thorn in Bolton’s side throughout, tricked his way into the box and his pull-back from the left needed only a finish which never came. It was the first of several problems he created before the hour.
Bolton, though, were determined to take the game to Sunderland and sub Ricardo Gardner almost set up an equaliser when he got to the edge of the area in the 51st minute and laid the ball off to his right, the unmarked Sturridge’s shot across goal going inches the wrong side of the far post.
The hour came up with the game fairly evenly balanced – Bolton doing most of the chasing, Sunderland looking relatively comfortable.
But the visitors lived dangerously in the 70th minute when only good luck and poor finishing kept them ahead.
Davies, predictably, created the problem on the left, setting up Paul Robinson to cross.
The ball dropped to Sturridge, whose goal-bound effort thudded into the torso of Bardsley inside the six-yard box. When the ball rebounded to the unmarked Chung-Yong Lee, he fired over the bar.
There were signs now that Sunderland were starting to tire and the game turned dramatically Bolton’s way when Coyle introduced the fresh legs of striker Ivan Klasnic and right-winger Rodrigo with 15 minutes remaining.
Rodrigo forced a good 80th-minute save out of Mignolet and two minutes later Steve Bruce replaced Malbranque with Sulley Muntari as the manager looked to see the game out.
Disaster struck Sunderland in the 87th minute, though, when all their hard work was undone by the Bolton subs – Rodrigo hitting a deep cross from the left and Klasnic, at the far post, getting the better of Bardsley to nod a header over Mignolet and into the far corner.
Despite the disappointment, an away point would not have been a disaster for Sunderland.
Losing it in time added on would have been – but when Rodrigo rifled in a left-wing cross two minutes into injury time and Davies volleyed it goalwards, Bardsley was there again, this time heading off the line.
That looked to the last act of a dramatic finale, but, in the 94th minute, Sunderland’s persistence earned them their fourth away win of the season.
Zenden and Colback – master and apprentice – linked up in midfield in Bolton’s half and Sessegnon fed the ball out to Muntari, on the left of the box, whose cross was deflected by Jaaskelainen and bundled home clumsily by Zat Knight as the big defender looked to block the ball going across goal.
The 4,000-plus Sunderland fans behind Jaaskelainen’s goal went mental, as well they might – football can be a crazy game.
Against the odds, Sunderland had got the win.
And the win ensures their season will not end with a whimper.
Judging by the pride and passion of Sunderland’s players afterwards, Wolves and West Ham are not in for easy rides in the two games remaining.