IT doesn’t get much more dramatic than this. For 95 tortuous minutes at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland toiled aimlessly against a Fleetwood Town side led by their arch-agitator Joey Barton. On Pancake Day, things were in grave danger of falling flat.

Then, with what was effectively the last kick of the game, Max Power received the ball from substitute Duncan Watmore and hammered home a rapturously-received equaliser from close to the penalty spot. Barton slumped to the turf in his technical area, Power raced to the corner flag with his team-mates tearing after him. It was only a point, and in truth, other results in the League One promotion race meant Sunderland could have done with claiming all three. But it felt like a hugely significant moment nonetheless.

Power’s stoppage-time strike cancelled out Barrie McKay’s fifth-minute opener for Fleetwood and avoided what would have been a first home defeat since mid-November. Crucially, it also kept the Black Cats within three points of the automatic promotion spots.

Phil Parkinson’s side were not at their best for most of the evening, a failing that can largely be attributed to the quality of Fleetwood’s defending, not to mention the organisation and discipline instilled by Barton, who is rapidly making a name for himself as a surprisingly astute coach.

However, after Chris Maguire cracked a first-half drive against the crossbar, the hosts continued to plug away with a tenacity and drive that is commendable. That can take you a long way in the third tier, and for all that Sunderland’s players will have to improve the quality of their attacking in the tests that await, last night’s drama proved they will not be found wanting when it comes to effort and commitment.

Fleetwood’s fine recent form meant this was always going to be one of the Wearsiders’ sternest tests since the turn of the year, so it was particularly disappointing that they were found badly wanting in the opening stages.

Whereas Barton’s visitors tore out of the blocks with pace and purpose, the hosts’ early lethargy was punished as they conceded their first goal since the defeat at Portsmouth at the start of the month.

Fleetwood almost scored after just 21 seconds, with a slack clearance from Jordan Willis affording McKay a free run into the left-hand side of the area. Thankfully, for Willis, Jon McLaughlin was alert to the danger and, having raced from his line, the Sunderland goalkeeper saved McKay’s low shot with his legs. Four minutes later, however, and the same player was giving him no chance.

Again, Willis was at fault, with McKay turning inside him far too easily after Paddy Madden’s neat inside pass released him into the area. Having left Willis looking flat-footed, McKay steadied himself before slotting home his first goal of the season.

Sunderland were second best by some distance at that stage, with Fleetwood’s energetic pressing pinning the home side’s midfielders into their own half and drawing a succession of cheap errors from those in red-and-white.

Lynden Gooch was especially culpable, charging down a series of blind alleys as he desperately tried to get his side going, but to their credit, the hosts hauled themselves back into the game as the first half progressed.

Not for the first time, Maguire was the catalyst for their improvement, drawing Fleetwood’s defenders out of position as he drifted across the face of the penalty area, and the in-form forward came within inches of claiming an equaliser midway through the opening period.

Luke O’Nien pulled the ball into his path from close to the byline, but while Maguire’s rising drive beat Cairns, it cannoned off the crossbar.

At least Sunderland were back on the front foot though, and with Denver Hume delivering a succession of dangerous balls from the left-hand side, the momentum of the game had shifted.

Willis fired a shot into Cairns’ midriff after more good work from Maguire, before Gooch dragged a low effort narrowly wide of the target when at least a couple of his team-mates were in better positions. The American’s sense of purpose is commendable, but occasionally his decision-making still leaves more than a little to be desired.

There was a raggedness to Sunderland’s play for much of the night which had not been apparent in most of their recent outings, partially a result of Fleetwood’s energy and organisation but also no doubt a reflection of their desperation to get back on level terms.

When composure was required it was often absent, with neither George Dobson nor Max Power able to exert much control from the heart of midfield. Glenn Whelan, Fleetwood’s 36-year-old fulcrum in the centre-circle, was the calmest head on the field.

That said, however, Sunderland continued to create half-chances in the second period, with Power lashing a long-range drive at Cairns and O’Nien looking plaintively at referee Scott Oldham when he appeared to be checked as he tried to reach Hume’s low centre.

Hume was replaced shortly after the hour mark, with his replacement by Antoine Semenyo resulting in a reshuffle that saw Gooch move to left wing-back, but the pattern of the game remained largely unchanged with Fleetwood’s defensive resilience neutering Sunderland’s attempts at attacking.

The visitors’ centre-half pairing of Harry Souttar and Lewis Gibson, once a trainee at Newcastle United, was especially effective, with Charlie Wyke barely getting a kick in the 18-yard box, such was the closeness of the attention he was subjected to.

Kyle Lafferty’s customary substitute appearance meant the Black Cats ended the game with four forwards on the field, and Parkinson’s positivity reaped its rewards just as referee Scott Oldham was about to blow his whistle.

Watmore held up the ball neatly with his back to goal, and Power held his nerve superbly to drive home a dramatic finish.