Ahead of a busy month of fixtures, Lee Johnson made two changes to the side that drew 1-1 against Lincoln last weekend. After being missing from the squad since the Black Cats’ 2-0 victory over Portsmouth at Fratton Park, Aiden O’Brien returned to the starting 11 in place of Conor McLaughlin, with Max Power dropping back in to fill the right back slot. In the centre of midfield, meanwhile, Josh Scowen replaced Grant Leadbitter.
First Half Action
A sloppy opening to the game at the Memorial Stadium saw neither side creating any clear-cut chances, with both Bristol Rovers and Sunderland utilising a high press in order to force the opposition into mistakes at the back.
Joey Barton’s side had the first opportunity of the match but it didn’t trouble Lee Burge, as Zain Westbrooke’s left-footed effort was watched past the right post by the Sunderland goalkeeper.
At the other end, McGeady’s off-balance shot drifted over the crossbar.
The high press from the home side did force the Sunderland backline into errors as Sanderson was dispossessed by Ayunga, who collected the ball and powered his drive wide of the right post.
As the half progressed, Sunderland gradually began to find their rhythm, but not the extent that has been witnessed in previous weeks, as Gooch’s right-footed shot from McGeady’s quick free-kick was parried away by Jaakola in the Bristol Rovers goal.
Set pieces proved to be Sunderland’s main form of attack, and they profited from a corner in the 39th minute and headed into the half time interval with a one-goal lead.
McGeady gained yet another assist, as he provided the delivery for O’Brien to poke the ball into the bottom left corner, after being given space inside the 18-yard box.
Half Time - Bristol Rovers FC 0-1 Sunderland AFC
Second Half Action
A succession of yellow cards for the Black Cats kick-started the second half, as Bristol Rovers focused more on maintaining the score at one-nil, despite being behind at the Memorial Stadium.
Their defensive strategy saw the Black Cats create more openings, as Power’s cross drifted to the back post, where McGeady’s acrobatic volley narrowly went over the bar.
McGeady almost made another telling contribution as his cut-back found O’Brien in space – but he arrowed the ball over the top of the bar. He claimed the keeper had tipped it over but a goal kick was awarded.
The introduction of Ross Stewart and Grant Leadbitter helped Sunderland reassert control in the centre of the park, whilst also adding to the Black Cats’ attacking press.
Sunderland probably should have had a two-goal lead, but Wyke’s shot was fired into the mid-drift of the Bristol Rovers goalkeeper from inside of the penalty area.
Lee Johnson’s side maintained their attacking threat, as McGeady’s curling free-kick from the left came back off the left post, having beaten Jaakola in the Rovers goal.
Somehow Sunderland weren’t able to convert their chances, as Winchester’s pass dropped for Wyke, whose left-footed drive forced the Bristol Rovers goalkeeper into another quick-fire save.
The final moments of the match saw the Pirates float the ball into the Sunderland penalty area, with David Tutonda’s shot being blocked by Lee Burge, while Jack Baldwin’s header landed in the gloves of the Sunderland goalkeeper, meaning that Sunderland produced yet another three points on the road.
Full Time - Bristol Rovers FC 0-1 Sunderland AFC
It was just over a year ago since Sunderland travelled to the Memorial Stadium, winless in their last three and their automatic promotion hopes balanced on a knife-edge.
That night ended in a 2-0 victory for the Pirates and Sunderland fans enduring a long journey back to the North East being soaked, unknowing that that would be their last match that they would be attending for more than a year.
Jonson Clarke-Harris demonstrated his attacking ability that night, by torturing the Sunderland defence and netting two goals, but both sides have had contrasting fortunes since.
For Sunderland, their first trip back to the Memorial Stadium since last March saw the Black Cats with a new manager, and in a different situation.
Lee Johnson has this Sunderland side well-drilled, and torrid week’s preparations due to another small COVID-19 outbreak adds to the impressiveness of Saturday’s win.
The Black Cats are now on the cusps of automatic promotion, and the League One title is theirs to lose, with two games in hand on Hull and one on Peterborough.
Lee Johnson has to manage his side against both of these sides next month, and they will be looking over their shoulder at the form of Sunderland, after yet another win.
Arguably, it was the most ugly of the lot. A single goal that gave Sunderland the three points, and the stop-start nature of the game didn’t really allow the Black Cats to create any sort of rhythm.
O’Brien came back into the side after a period on the sidelines, and netted the only goal, and should have put the game beyond doubt with his chance within the second half.
This was the story of the match, as Sunderland did have the chances but they couldn’t convert them into goals - adding more praise onto the backline yet again.
It was another calm and composed performance for a backline that has become one of the most resolute in the division, and for once it feels like this Sunderland side has automatic promotion in their own hands.
Saturday’s 7-0 win for the Posh against Accrington has added to the tension at the top of the table, but with games in hand for Sunderland, it now feels like they have the capability to turn these games in hand into three points.
April is perhaps the most important month of Sunderland’s three seasons in League One so far, with promotion finally seeming like something that is eminently achievable.
It just shows the difference a year can make. Sunderland come away from the Memorial Stadium with three points and another step closer to promotion.