Will Grigg’s superb finish rescued Sunderland as they recovered from an early set-back to beat Walsall 2-1 and pile pressure on Barnsley in the League One promotion race.
Grigg’s superb second-half finish and a Lee Cattermole half-volley allowed Jack Ross’ men to recover from Josh Gordon’s opener and win at the Stadium of Light.
A moment of sheer quality from the Northern Ireland international sealed the points in an otherwise scrappy second-half performance. The Mackems had battled well in the first after Gordon’s clever goal inside the first five minutes.
Crucially, promotion remains in Sunderland’s hands they trail the Tykes by just two points having played a game less, the teams have nine and eight games left to get out of the third tier respectively.
Walsall took a shock lead from the first attack of the match. Gordon’s superb improvised volley flew past Jon McLaughlin into the far corner. His volleyed back-heel from a whipped, in-swinging George Dobson free-kick evaded everyone in red and white, a disastrous start.
The visitors won the free-kick after some comically bad defending from Tom Flanagan who lost the flight of the ball from a long goal-kick and clumsily brought down a Walsall attacker.
Sunderland did manage to bundle the ball into the Saddlers net in the 15th minute, but saw the effort waved off. Will Grigg tapped in from close range, after an excellent Grant Leadbitter free-kick, but the referee had already penalised Jack Baldwin, who was adjudged to have fouled in the process of winning the initial header.
By the 20 minute mark the Black Cats had finally settled and put together their first quality attacking move. Lewis Morgan dragged wide from the edge of the area after a snappy exchange of passes between Adam Matthews, Max Power and Aiden McGeady.
Moments later Morgan riffled another effort on goal, his powerful strike needed to be tipped over by Liam Roberts in the visitor’s goal. The Celtic loanee missed his best chance of the game just before the half-hour mark, this time dragging his shot wide from the penalty spot, after a clever McGeady cutback.
Walsall produced their best attack since the goal on the half-hour mark with Zeli Ismail going close twice. First forcing McLaughlin to parry away his low drive and then needing Luke O’Nien to hook away his mishit shot from close range.
Jack Ross’ men leveled minutes later, Cattermole thrashed a Leadbitter corner back across goal with the pace of the strike beating Roberts who let the ball ricochet off him in at the near post.
Grigg was next to test Roberts forcing the keeper to parry away his half-volley from another dangerous Leadbitter set-piece.
The Mackems instantly retook the ascendancy after the break, this time Leadbitter went close with his driven effort sailing just high and wide of the top corner.
Sunderland pressure continued in the early stages of the second-half, Power saw his header from a corner nestle on the roof of the net, just over.
As the half wore on the contest became much more even with both sides having plenty of possession, but lacking that killer final ball.
From nowhere Sunderland found their crucial second, a flick on from substitute Charlie Wyke, made space for Grigg who got the ball out of his feet before slotting beyond Roberts from 20 yards out.
The finish was a reminder of why Stewart Donald was willing to potentially break the transfer record in this division for the former Wigan marksman.
The hosts were relatively comfortable in the final 20 minutes, with Walsall reduced to speculative crosses as their only real threat on goal.
If a couple passes hadn’t been slightly over-hit Sunderland could have added a third, but ultimately it didn’t matter as they secured a vital win in League One’s nail-biting promotion race.
Jon McLaughlin, 6/10: Barely tested outside of Walsall’s shock opener.
Adam Matthews, 7/10: The pick of Sunderland’s defenders, linked up well with Morgan.
Tom Flanagan, 5/10: Made a terrible error in the build-up to the goal.
Jack Baldwin, 6/10: Fairly solid, building off his impressive performance at Oakwell.
Luke O’Nien, 7/10: Made an important intervention when Sunderland were trailing and got forward with greater intent as the game wore on.
Lee Cattermole, 6/10: Brought Sunderland level delivering the all important equaliser, but looked sluggish protecting the back four.
Grant Leadbitter, 7/10: Caused the Saddlers all sorts of problems with his brilliant set-plays.
Max Power, 5/10: Really quiet throughout.
Lewis Morgan, 7/10: Sunderland’s most effective player in the first-half, caused Walsall all sorts of problems before fading and being replaced in the second period.
Aiden McGeady, 7/10: Had his fingerprints all over Sunderland’s fight-back, with his usual mix of skill and awareness.
Will Grigg, 7/10: Scored the brilliant winner, a moment of sheer class.
(SUB) Lynden Gooch, 6/10: Linked up well with O’Nien.
(SUB) Denver Hume, 6/10: A mixed bag in his first-team return after an extended lay-off.
(SUB) Charlie Wyke, 7/10: Provided an instant assist to help the Black Cats to a vital win.
Man of the Match: Luke O’Nien