A 95th-minute header from substitute Nathan Broadhead proved to be huge as Sunderland moved back into the Sky Bet League One play-off places with a crucial 1-0 win over Gillingham on Saturday afternoon.
Otherwise, Alex Neil’s side were heading for another case of two massive points dropped in their play-off battle, as despite dominating and proving to be the better side, they failed to create anything meaningful throughout the 90.
Frustration turned into ecstasy in the fifth minute of injury time as Broadhead produced what may prove to a season-defining moment.
With Oxford’s one-nil defeat to fellow contenders Plymouth Argyle, the Black Cats leapfrogged Karl Robinson’s side ahead of a massive showdown at the Kassam next Saturday.
Alex Neil made two changes from the side that played out a goalless draw at Sincil Bank two weeks previous, and the starting 11 fielded the welcome return of Alex Pritchard, and also centre-back Danny Batth.
Sunderland were out of the blocks quick in the opening stages: much of their play in the opening exchanges was fluent, but ultimately lacking in end-product.
In summary, it feels like a repeated message for Alex Neil’s side over the last couple of weeks, as for all they pushed forward, they couldn’t find a way through, and Aaron Chapman in the Gillingham goal was left largely untroubled.
Yes, part of that was due to Gillingham’s resistance, but in the opening 45, did Sunderland do enough? Probably not.
Both Patrick Roberts and Alex Pritchard were influential in the final third, whilst Jack Clarke held a threat on the opposing wing, but all too often, their creativity was taken a touch too far, and the home side had to resort back to square one.
Roberts created one of the Black Cats’ first openings as his curling left-footed effort drifted wide of the post, before Danny Batth headed wide of the right post from Pritchard’s corner.
Sunderland pushed closer to an opening, and would have had it in stunning fashion as Luke O’Nien’s improvised backwards header struck the top of the crossbar.
Yet, as the half went on, Neil Harris’ side began to look more confident in possession - slowing down the match at every opportunity - and through the Black Cats’ defensive fears, the Gills sensed an opening.
And, in truth, with better quality, the hosts may have found themselves behind in this one, as Sunderland switched off from a long throw-in and allowed Charlie Kilman to fire wide from a tight angle.
The first half was, more or less, summed up with Alex Neil’s animation on the touchline before the break - he was clearly frustrated by his side’s lack of quality and their overall quality in their performance, and in a sense, it was hard to disagree with that idea.
But, the change after the break was minimal - again, for all Sunderland could dominate the final third, they did little to trouble Gillingham.
Pritchard curled a long-range effort narrowly over the crossbar, before a succession of corners applied pressure - but still, Chapman had little to do.
As the clock ticked down, Sunderland’s desperation was increasing: yet, they still struggled to create any meaningful opportunities, so Alex Neil turned to the bench.
A triple substitution conveyed the Black Cats’ ultimate need for the three points, as Nathan Broadhead, Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch were all thrown into the fray.
With 80 minutes gone, Sunderland were gifted the counter-attacking move that they had searched for all match, as Broadhead broke away from the Gillingham defence with speed, before squaring for Corry Evans, who could only side-foot the ball over the bar.
A massive opportunity missed for the Black Cats, and a stale and lethargic contest was dwindling into an anti-climatic ending.
Well... that was until the deep depths of added time.
Embleton produced a moment of quality by curling a superb cross into the penalty area, with Broadhead sending the Stadium of Light into delirium with a brilliant header past Chapman.
A vital moment in Sunderland’s season, but oh how things were looking like they would be so much different.
For another weekend, the Black Cats were far from their best. Yes, they dominated and held 80% of the possession, and had 25 shots, but never really created anything of any worth.
Perhaps, this result will paper over some of the cracks, but when Sunderland aren’t at their best, Alex Neil has voiced how gaining the three points is more crucial.
“Substance over style”, he proclaimed before the international break, and in truth, on the day with results around the country, “substance” was crucial.
Neil won’t be under any illusions about the step-up needed as his side travel to the Kassam Stadium next Saturday. The significance of this match in the context of the play-off battle is huge, but the reward is no different to the remaining six matches.
There are 18 points still up for grabs, and Sunderland’s patience and hard work on Saturday shows they can face anything this month.
It’s seven matches unbeaten now for the Lads, and they’re on the final stretch of their League One season - Oxford next Saturday is huge.