Sunderland 1-1 Bristol Rovers
Chris Maguire was on hand to earn Sunderland a point after a testing opening day draw in League One at the Stadium of Light against Bristol Rovers.
The Black Cats had faced an uphill struggle after conceding a penalty for Luke Leahy to put the visitors ahead with less than three minutes on the clock.
Despite plenty of possession Sunderland had been unable to come up with a way to beat Anssi Jaakkola in the Rovers goal.
But with eight minutes remaining the ball rolled to Maguire on the edge of the area after another Denver Hume run down the left and the attacking midfielder did the rest.
That earned a draw for Sunderland who kept plugging away in the latter stages, including eight minutes of stoppage time, in a bid to find a winner.
Max Power hit the woodwork and had another cleared off the line during that late flurry but there was no way through and Sunderland – who had George Dobson issued with a straight red card in stoppage-time for a lunge on Jayden Mitchell-Lawson - start the season with a point.
Manager Phil Parkinson, who changed things in the second half, initially resisted the temptation to introduce a few of the players who shone in the 8-1 victory over Aston Villa’s Under-21s in the EFL Trophy in midweek against Rovers.
But all the planning suffered the crushing early blow when the visitors took the lead courtesy of a penalty that was conceded with just 90 seconds on the clock.
Goalkeeper Lee Burge, back between the posts after Remi Matthews’ midweek showing, wiped out Jayden Mitchell-Lawson as he tried to regain the loose ball after fumbling Max Ehmer’s early header down.
There were very few complaints and Leahy was quick to grab the ball and precisely pick out the top left of Burge’s goal to give Sunderland a hill to climb at such an early stage.
Rovers looked instantly as if they would be happy to sit deep and that allowed Sunderland to create an early opportunity to level when both Will Grigg and Aiden O’Brien saw efforts blocked from a deep cross into the area.
O’Brien and Grigg started together in attack despite the arrival of Graham, while George Dobson, Power and Maguire continued in midfield.
But Bristol Rovers did look dangerous occasionally when on the attack too because they were quick to get players in support of lone striker Brandon Hanlan.
Despite the visitors’ desire to do well, Sunderland created the better openings. Another saw Hume force goalkeeper Jaakkola into a one-handed save after O’Brien’s lay-off with half-time approaching.
Then Sunderland’s best move of the half soon after ended with Luke O’Nien cutting inside from the right and curling just wide with a deflection having been picked out following a brilliant interception and run by Tom Flanagan.
With Bristol Rovers still leading at the start of the second half, Sunderland had to come up with a way of turning their good play into a goal – something they failed to do against a Hull – and they eventually did.
Sunderland started positively, with Hume causing problems down the left again.
Parkinson must have feared the worst four minutes into the second half though when Bailey Wright escaped a second caution for a foul on Hanlan.
While the Rovers bench fumed, Sunderland attacked again and Jaakkola turned a Maguire effort around the post when it threatened to creep in.
A better save was needed from the Finn just after the hour when he dived to his right and turned away a flicked header from Dobson when he met O’Nien’s delivery.
Parkinson knew something extra was required so Graham was introduced for his second league debut for the club after leaving Blackburn. He replaced Grigg with 23 minutes remaining.
And just as Parkinson weighed up the introduction of Charlie Wyke and Lynden Gooch plus a change of formation, there was a reminder at the other end that Rovers could still pose a threat. Substitute Jonah Ayunga hammered an effort over with other options on.
Sunderland kept probing and just when it seemed they would not be able to find that crucial final ball or touch Maguire was on hand to level things up with seven minutes left.
He was left unmarked on the edge of the area and when an attack broke to him he controlled and fired inside Jaakkola’s right hand post from the edge of the area.
Sunderland sensed a victory was suddenly on the cards.
Power would have put them ahead moments later but Jaakkola’s brilliant save turned the 25-yard drive on to the inside of the post and to safety.
Instead of a later winner though there was a late card, with Dobson dismissed with a straight red card for a strong challenge on Mitchell-Lawson.
After that there was no way through.
SUNDERLAND: Burge; Willis, Wright (Wyke 78), Flanagan; O’Nien, Dobson, Power, Maguire, Hume; O’Brien (Gooch 78), Grigg (Graham 67).
Subs: Scowen, Matthews (gk), Leadbitter, Xhemajli.
BRISTOL ROVERS: Jaakkola; Little, Kilgour, Ehmer, Harries, Leahy (Tutonda, 74); Nicholson (Hargreaves 67), Westbrooke, Grant, Mitchell-Lawson; Hanlan (Ayunga 54).
Subs (not used): van Stappershoef, Daly, Hare, Baldwin.
Referee: Anthony Backhouse