ALAN Durban admitted to be heartbroken as title-chasing Ipswich Town denied bottom club Sunderland a deserved win.
The Rokermen, facing a massive fight to beat the drop, remained at the foot of the table after defender Kevin Steggles headed an 85th-minute leveller to dash hopes of a climb above Middlesbrough.
Manager Durban saw his side score in a match for just the third time in a dismal 12-game run, with Colin West bagging his first ever league goal.
And the former Stoke chief enthused: “The performance certainly gives me hope, but it was heartbreaking to see them score in the last five minutes.
“I picked a side for the Ipswich match with more power and six-footers as I believe that is what we have been lacking - especially in the last quarter of an hour or so.
“It bothered me all weekend (following a dreadful 2-0 home loss to Boro) that I had lost my effect on the players as I did not get the reaction on Saturday that I was hoping for.
“But, after two days with the players, they responded magnificently.
“It was a first-class display and we deserved to win.”
Certainly, Sunderland produced a spirited and passionate performance, a huge improvement on the lacklustre Wear-Tees derby showing – with skipper Iain Munro proving his “professionalism” by taking down Eric Gates when a mistake by Shaun Elliott let in the Ipswich man.
“It could have cost us had he not done it,” admitted Durban, while Munro – booked in the incident which would have seen a red card with the current rules – commented: “I know I will be suspended, but it had to be done. When you are the last line of defence and are put in these circumstances, you do what is best for the team.”
Only 11,845 turned up for the Wednesday night clash, the lowest Roker Park crowd in four years, but Sunderland showed, from the off, that they were ready to bustle their more illustrious opponents out of their stride.
Nick Pickering powered his way through early on and drove a shot just over the bar, then followed up with a diving header which went narrowly wide.
Paul Cooper made a brilliant, one-handed save to keep out Mick Buckley’s low drive for Sunderland, with the keeper having to keep out a West header seconds later.
Ipswich were always a threat on the break, with Arnold Muhren and Gates going close before Cooper had to react well to save another West effort.
Youngster West, though, got the goal his hard graft deserved on 64 minutes. It was not the prettiest goal, but welcome all the same for the long-suffering home fans.
Joe Hinnigan hoisted over a high cross from the left and keeper Cooper, making his only mistake all night, let it slip, allowing West to gleefully ram home the loose ball.
George Burley made a vital block to deny Sunderland a second after a great one-two worked by Pickering and Stan Cummins.
Then, just as the Rokermen looked to have weathered the storm, sub Kevin O’Callaghan beat Pickering on the flank and delivered a perfect cross for Steggles to nod home his first league goal.
That denied Sunderland only a third home win, Durban’s side having previously only beaten defending champions Aston Villa and then-leaders Southampton – both under the floodlights.
Ipswich’s point also saw them drop two behind Liverpool, who won at Manchester United thanks to a Craig Johnston strike.