Jack Colback and Craig Gardner rarely rank among football's headline-grabbers but they stepped off Sunderland's bench to impressive second-half effect, to help Gus Poyet's struggling side to secure an initially most unlikely point.
Two goals down after an appalling opening, and with Vito Mannone to thank for a series of stellar saves, the home side had that pair of unfashionable midfielders to thank for a quite startling comeback, which can only have exacerbated Southampton's current woes.
A week punctuated by chaos, commotion and chronic uncertainty on the south coast was made more miserable when, late on, Gastón Ramírez – the victim of a horribly clumsy, unpunished Wes Brown tackle, in which the defender won the ball but caught the substitute's ankle on the follow through – and Dejan Lovren, who collided with Gardner, were taken off on stretchers with serious-looking lower-leg injuries. Both players were taken to hospital. "They were in a lot of pain," said Mauricio Pochettino. "I'm not sure exactly what the injuries are; we hope they're not as bad they seem."
Southampton's manager "did not properly see" Brown's challenge, so was unsure "if it was a foul", but Poyet tacitly acknowledged the centre-half has been lucky to escape, at least, a booking. "A few years ago it would have been seen as a good old-fashioned English tackle," said Sunderland's manager. "But, now, it's not so sure."
He and Pochettino hugged each other long and hard before kick-off. The two South Americans had experienced contrasting weeks, Pochettino losing a key ally in Southampton's enormously influential former executive chairman, Nicola Cortese, and Poyet winning a significant internal battle when Sunderland's ex-director of football, Roberto De Fanti, departed.
At first, the turmoil surrounding their future direction appeared to inspire Southampton. Monopolising possession, they barely permitted Sunderland a touch, the Wearside team's frustration epitomised by Lee Cattermole's ridiculous hack at Jay Rodriguez's ankle, which resulted in a yellow card.
Rodriguez had given Pochettino's side a fourth-minute lead. Meeting a deflected clearance on the edge of the area, he had space and time to control the ball before flicking it up and dispatching a volley beyond Mannone.
He and Rickie Lambert spurned presentable chances to score further goals for the visitors before Lovren shrugged aside the slapdash Brown – playing a very long way below his best – to connect with Steven Davis's out-swinging corner and volley past Mannone.
A shapeless Sunderland, sitting far too deep, were being totally deconstructed, appearing particularly vulnerable when Luke Shaw and Rodriguez attacked their right flank. The wholesale booing, the fans streaming towards the exits and the look of sheer fury on Poyet's face spoke volumes. Then, incredibly, his under-achievers scored from their first proper attack. Hovering with his back to goal, Fabio Borini greeted Adam Johnson's right-wing cross by swivelling seamlessly and sending a half-volley bobbling beyond Artur Boruc's grasp.
Celebrating his first anniversary as Southampton's manager, Pochettino still had no real reason to panic at the start of a second half, when Mannone did extremely well to deny Rodriguez and Shaw after slick counter-attacks.
Heeding these warnings, Poyet galvanised his midfield, replacing Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson with Gardner and the ever-dependable Colback, who tightened things up appreciably. Finally pressed higher up the pitch, Southampton no longer dictated the tempo.
When the commendably lively Borini met a Gardner pass, he beat Boruc with a low shot, only to see his effort disallowed for a tight offside. But no linesman's flag rescued Southampton when Ki Sung-yueng crossed from the left and Gardner nudged the ball on to Johnson. The erstwhile England winger's fabulous, tightly angled, right-foot shot beat Boruc at his near post. "A very good point," said Poyet, clearly delighted by Johnson's fourth goal in two games. "Nothing was right for us at the beginning, not one thing. With half an hour to go we were second best, but the substitutes changed the game."
Pochettino's disappointment at two points surrendered was nothing next to his concern for Ramírez and Lovren. Both players were carried off with legs in braces, but the latter also required an oxygen mask, his plight seemingly emblematic of Southampton's plunge into the unknown.