Sunderland were sparred embarrassment and a catastrophic blow to their title aspirations as they came from 2-0 down to draw with Accrington Stanley.
Goals from Aiden McGeady and George Honeyman rescued a point for the Black Cats who trailed after a Billy Kee penalty and Paul Smyth goal.
A first home defeat looked inevitable after Smyth’s strike five minutes into the second-half, but Chris Maguire’s introduction galvanised Sunderland who battled to gain what could prove a vital point.
A draw puts the Mackems third on goal-difference ahead of Portsmouth and three-points off the automatic promotion spots.
Sunderland’s switch to 4-4-2 almost paid immediate dividends, when Charlie Wyke released McGeady, the Republic of Ireland international cut inside and barely missed the top corner, curling over in the opening five minutes.
Will Grigg missed another outstanding chance. Brilliant play from McGeady put Reece James through on the left, he picked out Grigg who got his angles all wrong, side-footing wide from the penalty spot.
The Black Cats domination continued with Grigg squandering another great chance. Wyke flicked on from a throw-in, but the 27-year-old couldn’t hook his half-volley goalwards striking wide from close-range.
Accrington slowly gained a foothold in the game in part due to sloppiness from the hosts. They were rewarded for their endeavours just before the half-hour mark. The visitor's best player, Smyth, skipped through the Sunderland defence only for Baldwin to clumsily lunge in and take him out for a stonewall penalty.
Kee stepped up confidently and blasted in an unstoppable spot-kick. Jon McLaughlin went the right way, down to his left, but the sheer pace and accuracy of the shot beat him for Stanley’s first goal in 2019.
The Mackems were denied a penalty of their own when the referee missed Ross Sykes elbowing the ball away from a Sunderland corner. Although, the corner should never had been awarded in the first place with Grigg pushing Accrington keeper, Jonny Maxted, to win the corner.
Smyth caused further problems for the home side just before half-time. He took advantage of awful defending from Jimmy Dunne, who looked shell shocked all night at the prospect of playing on television. Once he escaped Dunne’s challenge the Queens Park Rangers loanee raced through on goal, but couldn’t beat McLaughlin one-one-one, who parried away the low drive.
Sunderland missed a glorious five minutes after the break. Wyke slid wide, after getting on the end of the Black Cats best move of the game. Great combination play from Luke O’Nien and Lynden Gooch set up the frontman, who couldn’t quite get a strong enough contact on the ball.
Horror struck moments after the Wyke miss as Smyth doubled the Accrington lead. Brilliant wing-play from Sean McConville ended with an excellent ball which Smyth was first to heading in-behind McLaughlin from close-range.
Within minutes Sunderland were back in the game through Honeyman. Grigg blocked Maguire’s cross back across goal and Honeyman hammered in from close range. Game on.
The introduction of Maguire at 2-0 completely changed the game. He was integral in drawing Sunderland level combining excellently with McGeady for the equaliser. Maguire put it on a plate for the Irishman who calmly stroked home from around the penalty spot.
The momentum had completely changed with 25 minutes still to play and Maguire was at the heart of all things Sunderland. He struck a free-kick under the Stanley wall, only for Mark Hughes to clear off the line.
Finally Grigg showed his quality in a Sunderland shirt, turning excellently to shoot on goal. Despite the inventive, play Grigg saw his efforts blocked twice by Accrington defenders who were working tirelessly to fight for their point at the Stadium of Light.
Max Power nearly found the winner in the 89th minute, his powerful low shot was parried away by Maxted who was late seeing the ball.
Sunderland thought they had a winner in the last minute, O’Nien re-directed a Power strike beyond Maxted with an improvised diving header, only to be denied by the linseman. O’Nien was marginally offside.
For all their pressure and endless wave of attacks Sunderland couldn’t find a winner to cap an excellent comeback, drawing yet another match.
Jon McLaughlin, 6/10: Faultless for both goals, more wasteful in possession than usual.
Luke O’Nien, 6/10: Positionally awful, but impressive going forward when Sunderland were chasing the game.
Jack Baldwin, 4/10: Careless in possession, gave away a maddening penalty and just never ever played at an acceptable level.
Jimmy Dunne, 3/10: Sunderland’s worst player and that’s saying something.
Reece James, 7/10: Much better, offered greater attacking quality than we’ve seen in recent games from him.
Grant Leadbitter, 7/10: Marshalled play well even if the 4-4-2 formation left him exposed at times.
George Honeyman , 7/10: Impressed alongside Leadbitter, scoring the goal to get Sunderland back in the game.
Lynden Gooch, 6/10: Anonymous in the first-half, highly influential in the second.
Aiden McGeady, 7/10: A real Jekyll and Hyde performance, great and infuriating all within the same game.
Will Grigg, 5/10: Still way short of the level you’d expect of this division’s most expensive ever acquisition.
Charlie Wyke, 4/10: Started well, but got worse and worse as the game went on, not showing anywhere near enough quality.
(SUB) Chris Maguire, 8/10: Outstanding, energised the crowd and his teammates, saved the game.
(SUB) Lewis Morgan, 6/10: Barley impacted the game.
(SUB) Max Power, 7/10: So nearly bagged a Sunderland winner.
Man of the Match: Chris Maguire