Lee Connelly's late heroics seal dramatic draw for Sunderland U23s in basement battle with Fulham
Sunderland U23s left it late to salvage a point against Fulham in their Premier League 2 basement battle.
A first-half header from skipper Jerome Opoku looked to be enough for the visitors, who were forced to play over 45 minutes with ten men after Magnus Norman's red card just before the break.
But Lee Connelly drilled home in the 90th minute to secure a point for the Black Cats - who remain rooted to the foot of the division.
Sunderland were once again able to call upon the services of Bali Mumba and Benji Kimpioka as Elliott Dickman largely kept faith with the squad that had ground out a goalless draw at Middlesbrough in their last outing.
But it was Fulham - who sat just two places above the Black Cats at the foot of Premier League 2 (Division 2) - that started the brighter of the two sides with the lively Nicolas Santos Clase teeing-up Jayden Harris who drilled wide from 12 yards out.
Connelly twice threatened from distance as Sunderland sought the opener, but it was their visitors who struck first - a fine corner from Tyrese Francois was inch-perfect for the towering Opoku who beat Stryjek to the ball to head home.
Santos Clase - who looked lively throughout - continued to cause Dickman’s side some problems at the back, with only some last-ditch defending keeping the deficit to one.
The Cottagers’ continued to press in search of a second - but were dealt a blow on the stroke of half-time as Norman saw red for handling Kimpioka’s shot outside the area.
And the Black Cats almost levelled from the resultant free-kick - Kimpioka’s effort hitting the wall before falling kindly for Neil whose volley was deflected towards the bottom corner with only a fine stop from substitute goalkeeper George Wickens keeping Fulham ahead at the interval.
But despite their man disadvantage, it was the visitors who started the second half on the front foot as both Harris and Santos Clase forced Stryjek into stops.
The second half was far less open than the first with chances at a premium - although Opoku did almost double his and Fulham's tally with an overhead kick which dropped just wide of the far post.
It was Sunderland who were seeing most of the ball in the dying stages, but they struggled to carve out any meaningful chances against a disciplined and effective visiting backline.
That was until the game ticked into its final minute, when Connelly picked up a deep corner at the far post and drilled through Wickens' legs to seal a point in the most dramatic of manners.
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And it could have been even better for the Black Cats late on, but they were denied what looked to be a stonewall penalty when Connelly was tripped in the area - the referee waving away vocal appeals.
The result failed to lift Sunderland off the foot of the second tier of Premier League 2, but Dickman's outfit can look to end their campaign on a positive note when they travel to Southampton in a fortnight.
Sunderland AFC U23s: Stryjek; Hunter, Evans (Kokolo 62), Taylor, Bainbridge; Mumba, Hackett, Neil, Connolly (Gamble 62); Connelly, Kimpioka
Subs not used: Young, Johnstone, Storey
Bookings: Hackett (80), Connelly (90)
Goal: Connelly (90)
Fulham XI: Norman, Fossey, Sessegnon, Edun, McAvoy, Opoku, De La Torre, Harris, Kait (Wickens 45), Francois, Santos Clase
Subs not used: Asare, Abraham, Hilton, Garrido
Goal: Opoku (32)
Red card: Norman (45)
Referee: Mr Garreth Rhodes