Sunderland 1 West Bromwich Albion 1

It's not often you find Mick McCarthy lost for words. But Zoltan Gera's last- gasp headed equaliser not only left the loquacious Sunderland manager temporarily speechless, it also forced a classic slip of the tongue.

"Something like that absolutely knocks the stuffing out of you," McCarthy said. "It tastes lousy, that defeat!"

McCarthy's loss of bearings was entirely understandable. Having been mere seconds away from acclaiming his first Premiership win as Sunderland boss, to be forced to accept only a draw must have seemed like a defeat.

But, in the cold light of day, McCarthy will have to accept that if any team deserved to have claimed all three points it was West Bromwich Albion.

Albion manager Bryan Robson made no apologies to his opposite number for the lateness of the Albion equaliser. It might have come a bit late for comfort and it might have wrecked Sunderland's dream of a first Premiership win since December 2002 but it was hardly against the run of play.

Albion goalkeeper Chris Kirkland was between the sticks for Liverpool the last time Sunderland won in the Premiership almost three years ago. But, once he had been beaten by Gary Breen's early header, he really had only one reflex save to make from Dean Whitehead.

McCarthy's managerial counterpart Robson, once his Manchester derby rival, had most cause to moan - at the same time as being pleased to have stopped the rot on three successive defeats.

"No way did we deserve to lose," Robson said. "I was generally pleased with our performance. There were some good signs compared to the way we played against Wigan last week and in the first half against Birmingham.

"We showed signs of what we were good at last year and, by not getting beat, hopefully we may have turned the corner."

Even at this early stage of the season, Albion's last-ditch rescue could prove crucial.

Sunderland's first Premiership point in 21 matches may yet sow some seeds of recovery on Wearside. But to be denied all three with what proved the last kick of the match may take some getting over.

Having set the record low of 19 points when they went down three seasons ago, they are again looking red-hot favourites to fill one of the three relegation places.

Back on home soil, County Durham-born Robson was quick to acknowledge the importance of Gera's late leveller. He said: "If Sunderland win, that gives them a bit of confidence. Now they haven't got that first win after all, it makes it a lot tougher for them.

"It will knock their confidence as they still haven't won a game yet. But that's what it's like in relegation fights.

"We know from last season that, when you're down there in a relegation scrap, there's a lot of expectation and pressure but I've no sympathy because we scored in the last minute.

"You've got to get out of matches what you can and, if we hadn't scored that equaliser, I'd have come under a lot of pressure myself.

"Now we've got to keep putting in solid performances to get away from the bottom of the division." Horrified by the depths sunk to in last Saturday's 2-1 home defeat to Wigan, Robson made five changes.

One of them was forced on him when top scorer Geoff Horsfield aggravated an old calf injury in training. But Robson opted for another change up front, axeing new signing Nathan Ellington.

Instead, he paired new skipper Kevin Campbell and Rob Earnshaw up front for the first time since last season's final day. As well as dropping Thomas Gaardsoe to give Curtis Davies his debut, he left out Martin Albrechtsen and former Sunderland loan signing Darren Carter.

Steve Watson reverted from midfield to right-back, allowing Gera to come in for a first start since the debilitating experience of being left tired, thirsty and hungry in the Hungary dressing-room ten days earlier.

It looked like everyone was still getting to know each other again when, from Whitehead's corner, former Birmingham and Coventry defender Breen powered his towering early header into the roof of the net.

A loss of footing from Davies nearly allowed Sunderland in for a second. But, in their understandable haste to score, composure went out of the window and three home players successively miscued.

It also needed a superblytimed last-ditch tackle by Paul Robinson to deny Tommy Miller. But, by the end of the first half, Albion were starting to threaten.

Two penalty shouts by Earnshaw, the second of them quite decent after he tried perhaps too valiantly to stay on his feet under a challenge from Nyron Nosworthy, went unanswered. Then Neil Clement fizzed a free kick just over, and Earnshaw screwed horribly wide after being sent clear by Kevin Campbell.

Albion remained the more likely team after the break, especially following the added impetus provided by the introduction of substitutes Diomansy Kamara and Ellington. But McCarthy said that, the closer Sunderland got to that first win, the more the Wearsiders' legs buckled.

He said: "It was two poor sides on show, who are going to be scrapping and picking up points where they can. But of course you get edgy, and it was that edginess which cost us."

Ellington began the late spell of pressure that brought Albion their equaliser with a neat turn and right-foot shot that brought the best out of Kelvin Davis.

Davies bulleted a header just over, Justin Hoyte cleared off the line from Ronnie Wallwork's header after keeper Davis had spilled Robinson's cross. When Kamara slung over the resulting corner, Gera rose highest to bury his header and spark jubilation among the visiting ranks.

"It had crossed my mind for a second to take him off," Robson said. "He had a long, hard summer, he didn't get much of a break and hasn't been at his sharpest. But you also know he's always liable to do something like that."