SUNDERLAND’S limp towards the end of the season continued on Saturday, further crystalising in Martin O’Neill’s mind the certainty that genuine strengthening needs to take place this summer.
Three consecutive draws against relegation-threatened sides only serves to remind us that it was not so long ago that Sunderland, too, were down among the dead men struggling for results; not so long ago that these games were six-pointers for the Black Cats.
And after the astonishing burst of form which marked O’Neill’s arrival in December, it’s clear that Sunderland are struggling as a side to punch the weight they previously did.
Of course, it is difficult to match the intensity of opponents battling for their Premier League lives when you’re comfortable in mid-table with little to play for.
But if the recent game against Wolves showed Sunderland were running on empty, and the match against Villa a worrying inability to take chances, then the draw with Bolton revealed a worrying defensive frailty and a failure to see games out.
Taken collectively, the matches illustrated, in the words of O’Neill himself, that the club needs to be “stronger in terms of the depth of the squad and stronger in other aspects, too.”
By “other aspects”, the manager meant genuine quality in key areas.
And, for the second home game running, the manager could look on in envy as Kevin Davies demonstrated, in the same way Wolves’ Steven Fletcher had before him, how invaluable a fearless target-man can be for a team looking to press upfield.
Davies was his usual awkward self from the opening whistle of a game watched by a 40,000-plus crowd in chilly, blustery conditions.
But he wasn’t the only opposition player to shine in an in-form Wanderers side buoyed by their midweek win over Aston Villa.
The visitors dominated the opening exchanges.
Chris Eagles earned a free-kick in the opening few minutes which he then drove wide of the upright.
Nigel Reo-Coker whistled a shot a couple of yards off-target from 25 yards in the ninth minute and Mark Davies forced Craig Gordon into his first real save with a similar shot from distance.
The Scotland keeper – playing his first Sunderland game since February 2011 – was one of three changes to the side that was so unlucky not to beat Villa. Skipper Lee Cattermole returned from injury to replace the suspended Craig Gardner in midfield, while, on the right wing, hernia victim Seb Larsson was replaced by striker Fraizer Campbell.
Gordon would have been happy to get that routine stop out of the way early in the game but probably concerned the game might become one-way traffic in the wrong direction.
His team-mates remedied that – Sunderland coming more into the game as the quarter-hour approached.
But too many of their moves were let down by sloppy passing and poor first touches.
And it said everything about how out of touch they were in the opening half-hour that Jack Colback was guilty of careless passing and Stephane Sessegnon of several poor first touches.
It wasn’t too much of a surprise, given Sunderland’s lethargy, when Bolton took the lead in the 25th minute.
Though the visitors hadn’t looked lethal, Sunderland had never really closed down clinically and they paid the price for that when Martin Petrov, on the left wing, was given a generous amount of time and space to drive over a deep cross to the far post where Kevin Davies lurked.
Danger might still have been averted, but Matt Kilgallon had allowed the striker to pull off him and the Bolton veteran had the space to stab a low shot across the exposed Gordon and into the far corner of goal.
Sunderland laboured to respond.
Sessegnon had modest claims for a penalty waved away, James McClean put in a free-kick from the right which was almost glanced in at the far post by Kilgallon.
But, just as the mood of the crowd was darkening at Sunderland’s error-strewn football, the atmosphere was changed completely by a 36th-minute equaliser.
Colback was the architect, receiving the ball in the centre from the left wing and weighting the perfect defence-splitting pass to Bendtner in front of goal.
The striker still had a lot to do 10 yards out, but he made the finish look simple, cushioning the ball skilfully in his side before passing the ball home past Adam Bogdan.
Suddenly Sunderland were a team transformed, galvanised by the end of a goalless run stretching beyond seven hours – Phil Bardsley’s goalbound shot was handballed, but the contact was accidental; John O’Shea almost squeezed a shot home inside the six-yard box, with Petrov forced to hook clear off his goal-line.
Under-pressure Bolton held their nerve and managed a counter-attack just before half-time when Bendtner gave the ball away cheaply – David Ngog almost scoring a scruffy goal when he mis-hit a shot into the turf which was looping down and over Gordon, before the keeper managed to glove the loose ball on to the crossbar.
Gordon’s alertness was tested early in the second half when Eagles sliced an attempted cross straight at the keeper, who got down nimbly.
But Sunderland were better after the break and took the lead in the 55th minute after Kevin Davies had upended Sessegnon five yards outside the Bolton area to conceded a free-kick.
Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner have been vying for deadball duties all season, but, with both unavailable, McClean took responsibility and produced an effort which either of his team-mates would have been proud of.
The winger lifted a powerful left-foot shot over the wall and Bogdan was unsighted, seeing the ball late and managing to get his left hand to it, but only able to push it up against the bar and in.
The stadium exploded in celebration of a stunning comeback after Sunderland’s inauspicious start – McClean was as elated as he had every right to be, especially with Republic of Ireland scouts said to be at the match, and O’Neill punched the air with satisfaction.
At this point, Sunderland looked to have drawn Bolton’s sting.
They had chances to put the game pretty much beyond Bolton’s reach in the minutes that followed, but O’Shea sliced a close-range shot high into the stand in the 63rd minute and, three minutes later, Campbell took possession in front of goal but lifted a quickly-taken shot inches over the bar from 20 yards.
The visitors exacted a heavy price for those misses when they levelled in the 70th minute.
But the pain for Sunderland was increased by the fact that the visitors’ second goal proved just as easy to create and convert as their first.
Once again, the danger came from the left, this time from full-back Sam Ricketts, who had all the time in the world to curl a great in-swinging centre to the far post where Kilgallon was all at sea, desperately trying to reach the Bolton skipper as Davies calmly nodded back across Gordon from five yards out.
It was a horribly deflating moment for Sunderland, who tried to hit back immediately only for Bendtner to be able to get no power on a shot from 10 yards.
And Bolton finished the stronger, carving out three late chances – two of which required brilliant saves from Gordon.
First, Davies beat Kilgallon to set up substitute Ivan Klasnic, who drove his shot wide. That was enough for O’Neill, who brought off the centre-half and reshuffled his defence, bringing on Wayne Bridge.
It was a sad moment for Kilgallon, who has proven an excellent deputy under O’Neill but was culpable for both goals and, clearly distraught, received no handshake from the manager as he headed to the dug-out.
Bolton’s second chance came in the 87th minute when Klasnic’s swivel and shot, on the right of goal, could easily have caught Gordon by surprise, but the keeper stretched out his left leg at the near post and blocked the low, dangerous effort.
Finally, in time added on, Bridge produced a near-suicidal back pass and Gordon needed to react instantly to prevent Klasnic from pouncing.
The final scoreline pleased neither side – Bolton failing to get out of the bottom three, Sunderland unable to get back into the top half.
But there were completely conflicting mind-casts from the managers as they shook hands and headed down the tunnel – Owen Coyle utterly focused on the remaining games of this season; O’Neill already with more than one eye on the next.