West Ham United endured a disappointing afternoon at the Stadium of Light as Freddie Ljungberg's early goal was cancelled out by Kenwyne Jones and Andy Reid.
Ljungberg's strike was the least Alan Curbishley's men deserved after a bright start but gradually the home side turned the tide to equalise through Jones and a series of injuries did not help the visitors' fortunes in the second half. George McCartney, John Pantsil and Ljungberg all went off with knocks - the latter's departure leaving United down to ten men for the closing stages before Reid struck right at the death.
Curbishley had made two changes from the 1-1 draw at Everton last weekend with Jonathan Spector replacing James Tomkins, with the 19-year-old birthday boy dropping to the bench. Up front, Carlton Cole got the nod ahead of Luis Boa Morte with the Portuguese forward's absence meaning Mark Noble moved to the left-hand side of midfield.
Sunderland began in fired up mood with a couple of hefty challenges early leaving Dean Ashton, Noble and Lucas Neill wincing. The first chance came their way in the fourth minute, Michael Chopra getting space to shoot but his low effort ran wide of Robert Green's right-hand post. Having conceded early in the previous five games, the visitors were determined to get the first goal this time around.
It nearly came when Cole fired in a fantastic cross in the eighth minute only for quick thinking by David Bardsley to deny Mark Noble. Ashton thought he had opened the scoring a minute later with a sublime side-footed effort from Scott Parker's pull back that had Gordon beaten but frustratingly crashed against the post. Cole and then Noble had further opportunities to shoot, although both went wide.
Ljungberg finally broke the deadlock in the 17th minute after strong play involving Ashton and Hayden Mullins. The ball then found its way to Cole who had the foresight to lay it back for Ljungberg on the edge of the area and the Sweden captain took a touch before driving into the far corner beyond Gordon. The £9m goalkeeper was not helped by a deflection off Nyron Nosworthy.
At the back, Ferdinand was proving effective against the aerial threat of Jones while Cole was equally committed and went into the book for a foul on Dean Whitehead, his ninth caution of the season, on 24 minutes. Sunderland restored parity, however, when Kieran Richardson ran at Lucas Neill before crossing low into the box and a Daryl Murphy flick found Jones, who neatly flicked in from close range.
An Andy Reid caution aside, Sunderland were in the ascendancy. Chopra and Reid both tested Green with long-range efforts before Ashton's superb build-up play led to Cole firing in a curling 18-yard effort that looked in until Gordon clawed it away from the top corner at the last moment. It was an open game, demonstrated by Danny Collins missing with a free header just before half-time.
The second half saw the introduction of Pantsil for McCartney, who was back at his former club. It was a scrappier affair than the opening 45 and Jonathan Spector twice had to put in vital clearances as Sunderland tried to apply pressure before Neill cleared off the line from Collins' header. Roy Keane's men clearly had the upper hand and Curbishley looked to bolster the midfield by replacing the hard-working Cole with Nolberto Solano.
A Reid free-kick from 30 yards that sailed high and wide preceded a double Sunderland substitution with Chopra and Richardson to be replaced by Carlos Edwards and Grant Leadbitter. Curbishley was forced into his third and final change when Pantsil clashed heads with Spector, and the dazed Ghana defender had to go off for Tomkins. The youngster made an instant impact though with a clearing header as Collins prepared to pounce.
Despite all the changes, that had seen Spector play at centre-back, right-back and finally left-back in one match, United kept going. Sunderland thought they had the winner in the 81st minute when Jones rolled Tomkins and teed up Murphy but the Sunderland attacker blazed his shot over the bar from ten yards. It was his last contribution before departing for Roy O'Donovan. Ljungberg then pulled up with a hamstring injury before the added-time heartbreak of Reid volleying past a despairing Green.