Sunderland claimed their first Sky Bet League One victory of 2021, as a Charlie Wyke hat-trick meant that Lee Johnson’s side, temporarily, propelled themselves up to 5th in the table.
His first goal came in the seventh minute, tucking home Aiden O’Brien’s low cross, before two goals in four minutes in the final stages sealed his first league hat-trick of the season.
Lee Johnson made four changes from the team that progressed through to the quarter-finals of the Papa John’s Trophy on Tuesday night. Lynden Gooch was absent from the squad, with Charlie Wyke returning to the starting XI, in attack with Aiden O’Brien, who kept his place in the side.
Lee Burge returned in between the sticks, with Aiden McGeady and Grant Leadbitter replacing Chris Maguire and Dan Neil. On the bench, there were spaces for Luke O’Nien, who continued his recovery from a shoulder injury, and new signing, Carl Winchester.
The opening stages of the game began with a scrappy start from both sides, who looked to find a route to the opening goal, which came with seven minutes on the clock.
Grant Leadbitter fizzed a low pass to Elliot Embleton, who kept the ball alive, by flicking it on to Aiden O’Brien. O’Brien carried the ball to the by-line, attracting the ‘keeper off his line, and squared it to Wyke. The Sunderland striker netted his ninth league goal of the season, by calmly stroking the ball over the goal line.
The home side grew into more confidence in their new home, Plough Lane, with Ryan Longman trying to test Lee Burge. His long-range effort caused Burge to scramble across his goal, but managed to grasp the ball before bouncing into the bottom left corner.
Sunderland began allowing their opponents more and more opportunities, with Jack Rudoni’s left-footed shot arrowing directly into the gloves of the Sunderland goalkeeper.
The half time whistle would have came at the perfect time for Lee Johnson, as it calmed the AFC Wimbledon attacking threats, and gave him chance to work with his troops, with Sunderland taking a one goal lead into the break.
Half Time - AFC Wimbledon 0-1 Sunderland AFC
After the interval, AFC Wimbledon sensed an opportunity to record some points onto the board in aid of their relegation battle. When Nesta Guinness-Walker’s shot was fired across the face of Lee Burge’s goal and rolled narrowly wide of the right post, warning signs appeared for the Black Cats.
Just before the hour mark, Carl Winchester was provided with his first minutes in a Sunderland shirt, as Lee Johnson reverted to a 4-3-3 system, with Elliot Embleton making way for the new signing.
Not long after the substitution, Josh Scowen used his attacking-midfielder role to advance into the penalty area, with his header from Max Power’s cross being directed well over the crossbar.
AFC Wimbledon did well to minimise the amount of chances that Sunderland could create as an Aiden McGeady long-range effort arrowing wide of Sam Walker’s right post. Then, within the space of ten minutes, Lee Johnson used two of his substitutions. Jack Diamond and Chris Maguire replaced Aiden McGeady and Aiden O’Brien, respectively.
Just as AFC Wimbledon were beginning to mount added pressure onto the Sunderland backline, Sunderland sealed the three points through Charlie Wyke’s second of the match.
A perfectly executed training-ground routine involved Leadbitter’s corner being whipped to the front post, where Charlie Wyke swept the ball past Sam Walker and into the back of the net.
AFC Wimbledon came the closest to netting a goal moments after the Black Cats increased their lead, when Joe Pigott’s shot from just outside of the penalty area smashed off the woodwork.
Sunderland’s third goal of the afternoon didn’t affect their points total, but it completed Charlie Wyke’s hat-trick. Josh Scowen slipped the ball through to Charlie Wyke, who effortlessly dinked it over the goalkeeper and into the bottom left corner.
Wyke’s third goal proved to be one of the final moments of the match, with Sunderland winning their first match back at Plough Lane.
Full Time - AFC Wimbledon 0-3 Sunderland AFC
Over Sunderland’s three seasons in League One, there have been some clear turning points in their quest for automatic promotion, such as last season’s 2-1 victory against Doncaster Rovers at the Keepmoat Stadium began a revitalised period of form under Phil Parkinson.
After a couple of weeks without a win, it was a clear statement that the team had turned a corner for the better - heading into 2020.
Now, after a couple of stop-start weeks due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it finally seems like Lee Johnson is beginning to form a side that is looking up.
With the return of Jordan Willis to the backline, it felt like an added form of defence, with his experience and composure showing to reduce the amount of chances from Joe Pigott.
Also, the 4-2-2-2 system paid off for Wyke’s first goal of the game, with Embleton keeping the ball alive, whilst McFadzean helped to exploit the wider areas.
The first three points of 2021 seems a breath of fresh air, as Sunderland were carefully able to manage the game, despite becoming more sloppy during the first half.
It was always clear that the Black Cats had the players to damage the AFC Wimbledon defence within a heartbeat, but the players needed to wait until the time was right, and the Wimbledon backline became more exposed as the clock ticked down.
In the early stages of the season, many fans have debated whether Charlie Wyke is a striker who is capable of firing Sunderland out of League One, but with potentially a new striker on the manager’s shopping list - with 13 goals already this season, is it worth sticking with Charlie Wyke?
On Tuesday, Plymouth Argyle are the visitors to the Stadium of Light, as Sunderland look to start building up momentum, ahead of a busy February and March.
Saturday’s 3-0 win against AFC Wimbledon may seem like a turning point in Sunderland’s season, but whether it is a turning point will only known within the next few weeks.