Football: STAY-AWAYS TO HEAVEN; Blackburn 3 Sunderland 3 Absent Fans Miss Thriller with a Final Twist

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Byline: Steve BATES

THEY STAYED away in their thousands - but Blackburn's Cup-stressed fans missed the most excitement Ewood Park has seen all season as Dwight Yorke's injury-time equaliser dragged Rovers back from the dead.

And Rovers boss Graeme Souness was left wishing he'd been able to join the stay-aways and turn his back on a battle that brought him a belly- full of Cup anguish for the second time in a four days.

Dumped out of the Worthington Cup semi-finals by a rampant Manchester United in midweek, Souness watched in disgust as his sloppy side were taken to the brink by Howard Wilkinson's Premiership strugglers.

Despite the drama of Yorke's last-gasp lifeline, Souness was in angry mood as he rounded on his shoddy performers. "Some things pleased me but there was a lot that made me angry," blasted the Rovers chief.

"Our defending was an absolute shambles and I'm annoyed because we have been working on that in training.

"We looked like strangers at the back and we gifted them a start. We looked dead and buried and although that might have been good for the neutrals it was awful for me, and Howard too."

But Wilkinson, who saw his team toss away a 3-1 lead in the last 20 minutes, gave his players a pat on the back. "They threw the kitchen sink at us in the last 15 minutes but overall we played particularly well," he said.

"We had two penalty claims and hit the bar as well as scoring three times.

"I have tried to address the problem of playing with fear and today is seemed the penny has dropped."

Only 14,315 punters turned up to watch an end-to-end tie that oozed excitement, rather than quality.

Sunderland made the most of a day off from their survival fight. They sprang from the traps and were ahead after just two minutes.

Michael Gray robbed David Thompson and Sunderland moved the ball to Michael Proctor, who picked out Marcus Stewart in acres of space. The former Ipswich attacker has hardly been prolific since his arrival, but composure and a deadly eye were too much for a startled Brad Friedel.

Kevin Phillips should have made it two with an unchallenged header from Julio Arca's corner but he put the ball well wide of the target.Another miss by Phillips rebounded badly on Sunderland as seconds later Blackburn discovered their touch and grabbed an equaliser.

Andy Cole, drifting off his marker, raced onto a pass from Aussie defender Lucas Neill and fired a low drive home with the visitors claiming offside. …