After producing a win at Wembley in the Papa John’s Trophy final, Lee Johnson rotated his squad with an important trip to Accrington Stanley on Wednesday evening.
Dion Sanderson, Carl Winchester and Jake Vokins were brought back into the starting eleven after being cup-tied for the final on Sunday. And after impressing in his cameo at Wembley, Jack Diamond was handed a start ahead of Chris Maguire, with Max Power being pushed into midfield ahead of Grant Leadbitter.
First Half Action
Sunderland’s Wembley triumph was thrown to the back of the minds of the players as they placed their sole focus on the final run-in, with this match starting that period.
And the Black Cats recorded the first shot on target in the game when Gooch’s low shot was fired into the gloves of the Accrington Stanley goalkeeper, who dropped onto his knees.
A lacklustre start to the match was reflected in the openings that were created by both sides - two of Sunderland’s most influential attackers linked up, with McGeady sliding the ball to Diamond, who ignored Power and sent his shot goalbound, but was halted from bending it in the bottom corner by the Accrington goalkeeper.
The home side looked a threat on the counter attack, and they almost profited from a Sunderland corner as a swift counter-attack had Jake Vokins - the sole defender - back-tracking, with Paul Smyth leading the charge. Approaching the penalty area on the left, the Accrington striker sent his shot just wide of the right post.
Sunderland’s best chance of the opening 45 came to an unlikely source in an unlikely area, as O’Nien was given the freedom of the six-yard box, but diverted Gooch’s cross miles wide of the right post.
Both sides traded their best openings just before the interval, with Stanley trying their luck at breaking the deadlock when McConville’s cross finding Harvey Rogers, who rose the highest but flicked his header wide of the post.
Half Time - Accrington Stanley 0-0 Sunderland AFC
Second Half Action
At half-time Lee Johnson made a substitution in the hope that it would have an immediate impact, with Ross Stewart made his first appearance in a Sunderland shirt after a long injury lay-off. The Scottish forward headed a great cross from Jake Vokins that was directed over the bar by the Accrington keeper, but his goal wasn’t far away.
In between that effort and the Sunderland goal, Accrington were given far too much space in dangerous areas, as David Morgan carried the ball and arrowed his shot narrowly wide of the post.
Ross Stewart was knocking on the door to break the deadlock as a clearance from Accrington only found the Sunderland striker, who diverted the ball back towards their goal, but it was grabbed on the line by the Stanley goalkeeper.
When his goal did arrive, it was no surprise to see whose name was on the scoresheet, as Stewart’s goal was warranted by his efforts since being introduced into play.
Gooch’s dink into the penalty area was met by the debutant’s head, who threw his body into looping the ball over the goalkeeper before the ball bounced into the goal.
After we scored, Accrington didn’t really pose much of a threat, with Stanley’s downward form over recent weeks showing in their lack of creativity into breaking down the resolute Sunderland defence.
Their efforts into finding an equaliser were made a whole lot tougher as Charlie Wyke claimed his 22nd League One goal of the season to put the game to bed.
Power’s teasing delivery from the left was met by Wyke, who nodded the ball past a stranded Accrington Stanley goalkeeper to wrap the game up.
Two-nil, game over - another three points for the Black Cats!
Full Time - Accrington Stanley 0-2 Sunderland AFC
Over recent years, Accrington Stanley have been one of those teams.
Despite only playing once at the Stadium of Light during Sunderland’s three seasons in the third tier and not getting the better of the Black Cats, Stanley have always provided Sunderland with a sturdy barrier to break down.
John Coleman has his side in play-off contention, despite being in 13th in the League One table, and it would be remarkable if they could make it into the play-off shootout for the Championship.
After the 2019 Checkatrade Trophy final defeat, Sunderland’s next League One match came at the Wham Stadium on a Wednesday night in a convincing three-nil win, and coincidently, after the 2021 EFL Trophy victory, the next league match was against John Coleman’s side.
On that night it was a new signing that stole the headlines, as Kazaiah Sterling produced an impressive performance and gained his only goal in a Sunderland shirt.
This time, it was a debutant that stole the show for the Black Cats, as Ross Stewart scored his first Sunderland goal, and helped his side claim three points.
Stewart may gain the headlines for his goal, but yet again, it was a Lee Johnson masterclass, as a half-time switch removed Jack Diamond and introduced the Scotsman.
It provides a complete contrast to the characteristics that fans witnessed during the Parkinson era, and after the changes made during the Crewe draw, it proves to be another step onto Sunderland’s automatic promotion bid.
The new Sunderland striker provided Lee Johnson’s side with an alternative approach to utilise, and an aerial threat alongside Charlie Wyke in attack.
All in all, it helped to sway the match in the favour of the Black Cats in what may turn out to be another huge moment in Sunderland’s final run-in.
The three points have Sunderland in third place - two points ahead of Saturday’s opponents, Lincoln, and are five points off the top of the table with two games in hand over Hull.
If Sunderland continue in their same vein of form that they have been showing in their past couple of weeks, by drawing out wins in the most crucial of times, there should be no reason why they aren’t in the top two by the end of May.
Lee Johnson still has obstacles ahead with matches against Hull, Peterborough, Lincoln, Charlton and Oxford United within the next month, but the Black Cats have shown that in the major moments, they are able to produce the goods.
A hugely important League One clash against Lincoln comes on Saturday, and another three points will definitely place Sunderland as the favourites for automatic promotion, with a gap further widening between the Black Cats and sixth-placed.
“Favourites for automatic promotion” - who would have thought that at the beginning of the year?