Martin O'Neill had been dreaming about this. To be precise the boyhood Sunderland supporter said that during the past week he had experienced 15 versions of a fantasy in which his new team beat Blackburn Rovers. "But never in my wildest dreams did I see us winning this way," said O'Neill after Sebastian Larsson's stoppage‑time free‑kick had provided the perfect start to his managerial reign on Wearside.
"I'm just ecstatic, it was a surreal experience, really surreal," said the former Aston Villa, Celtic and Leicester City manager who had earlier seen Blackburn take the lead. "It's been a great day. If the fans feel half as good as I do, it will be great for them."
O'Neill's introduction of the debut‑making winger James McClean helped to create the attacking impetus which led to David Vaughan's sublime late equaliser before Larsson's denouement. "James McClean was brilliant when we beat Manchester United 6-3 in the reserves last week," he said. "We all needed a lift and he gave us one. He wants to get at players, he's so positive. The crowd took to him straightaway."
There were similarly warm words for Vaughan. "I like him, he doesn't say much, he's very quiet but Vaughan's a lovely player. He can control the ball. The goal was fantastic; he's brilliant."
Although, deep in the second half, it briefly crossed O'Neill's mind that this might prove a "bad day", he could not fault his team's energy and effort. "We had loads of possession," he said. "Overall I thought we did terrifically. I thought that, at some stage, we must have a breakthrough. We deserved a breakthrough. You sensed confidence coming back right through the team.
"I thought the players were very determined today and I thought the crowd were fantastic. I thought they kept with the players. I think the players had self-belief back; they believed that maybe something would break for them. I think the players are really genuine. Today they were playing under a bit of pressure to try and get a result and to try and please people. Now they just need to keep going."
Steve Kean was rather less enthusiastic. As the first manager to be reacquainted with O'Neill's desire to see his players showing off their crossing ability whenever possible, the Scot was left with plenty of mental bruises.
"It was wave after wave of attack from them," said Blackburn's manager. "But I thought in the second half that we'd minimised Sunderland's threat from crosses. I thought we'd done enough defensively and that we were going to see the game out. I thought that we'd really managed the crosses and I felt we deserved something too."
By way of exacerbating Kean's pain Martin Olsson aggravated an old hamstring strain, Gaël Givet was withdrawn suffering first‑half heart palpitations and, in stoppage time, Jason Lowe left the pitch on a stretcher wearing a neck brace.
Watching the right-back receive protracted medical treatment which included the administering of oxygen, many in the crowd feared a serious injury but Kean confirmed that the neck brace had been precautionary and the diagnosis was concussion.
In the end an injury caused by a collision with Larsson did not end in a hospital visit and Lowe boarded the Blackburn team bus nursing a sore head featuring a few newly inserted stitches.
Similarly, although Givet's heart had slipped out of rhythm and the Rovers team doctor was sufficiently concerned by his racing, irregular pulse that he was immediately taken off, Givet too travelled back to Lancashire with his team-mates.
"Givet's pulse rate was dangerous and we just had to get him off," said Kean. "He's had it before, it's something where his heart goes out of sync. We've had a heart monitor on him and his heart rate has settled back down now. He's fine but we'll have another look at it and check him out again."