RACHEL Furness scored a stunning injury-time winner to keep Sunderland’s FA Women’s Premier League title defence on track.
The Lady Black Cats were set to drop two vital points at Eppleton CW as the seconds ticked down to the final whistle when the Northern Ireland international hit a magnificent shot on the turn to seal a 3-2 victory.
Injury-ravaged Sunderland started well and created the first opening as Keira Ramshaw freed Sophie Williams, who crashed a shot against the bar.
American Robin Chidester was first to react but fired wide under pressure from Natasha Lynch.
At the other end, Courtney Sweetman-Kirk raced through on goal but skipper Steph Bannon made a fine tackle to clear the danger.
Sunderland’s top scorer, Beth Mead, flashed a shot narrowly wide before a speculative 25-yard effort by Helen Dermody was also off target for Coventry.
The visitors took the lead, though, in the 24th minute following a right-wing free-kick. The ball was floated into a crowded box and skimmed off Ruth Sutcliffe’s head as it flew into the roof of the net.
Chidester made ground down the right before pulling it back for Williams to shoot, but Susan Wood made a fine stop in the Coventry goal.
Then Furness and Mead combined to set up Williams, but again the keeper made a good save.
Sunderland levelled in the 35th minute after being awarded a penalty when Williams was tripped in the box as she prepared to shoot. Furness confidently dispatched the spot-kick.
Dermody tried her luck again from distance with a vicious swerving shot and Sunderland keeper Helen Alderson managed to parry the ball out, where Sweetman-Kirk lifted the loose ball over the bar.
Sunderland were quick off the mark in the second half, taking the lead for the first time.
Mead cleverly beat two defenders and pulled the ball across the face of goal for Williams to slide the ball home at the far post in the 46th minute.
Sunderland’s play began to flow more freely now as Chidester and Sutcliffe exchanged passes to set up Mead to shoot narrowly over.
A free-kick on the edge of the box was driven in by Bannon but Wood smothered the ball well.
Ramshaw and Mead went close while a searching ball from Furness found Williams, who was denied by Wood.
At the other end, Sweetman-Kirk closed in, but she was denied by a challenge from Becky Salicki before Ellie Christon cleared the danger.
Coventry drew level after 70 minutes against the run of play when they were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position. As the ball was driven in, it bobbled around the box before Nicole Dale lashed home a great strike from an acute angle.
As the game moved into the closing stages, Sunderland upped the pressure in search of a winner.
Vicki Greenwell left two defenders in her wake in a fine run down the left before she squared the ball into the box. It rolled agonisingly along the goal-line before being hacked clear.
Time was virtually up when Sunderland won a throw on the left and Williams took it quickly to Furness.
The midfielder turned sharply and hit a fierce shot which carried over everyone and dropped into the far top corner to the delight of the home fans.
Manager Mick Mulhern could not hide his delight after the game.
“The squad has been stretched with injuries but we showed a lot of character today,” he said.
“That’s what I asked for at half-time and the girls responded with a better second half display. We kept on fighting until the end – and that’s what champions do.”
Title rivals Watford won 4-0 against Aston Villa, while Leeds beat Charlton 2-0.
Sunderland now lead Watford by two points with a game in hand, and are five points clear of Leeds having played the same number of games.
Sunderland: Alderson, Christon, Bannon, Salicki, Greenwell, Chidester, Sutcliffe, Furness, Williams, Mead, Ramshaw. Subs (not used): Atkinson, Caldwell, Laws, Wilson.