How an inspired Lee Johnson substitution saw Sunderland extend their unbeaten run at Accrington Stanley
This was one occasion where Sunderland fans didn’t mind that history repeated itself.
As they did after their trip to Wembley in 2019, the Black Cats headed to Accrington in the game immediately following a cup final.
And just as they did two years ago, they left the North West with maximum points.
The victory wasn’t as clear-cut as that in April 2019 but it was arguably more satisfying given it continues the Black Cats’ stunning run of form under Lee Johnson.
After a cagey first half, Ross Stewart’s debut strike and a late Charlie Wyke header sealed the win for Sunderland who - while dominating the game for large spells - came up against a stubborn and compact Accrington side looking to arrest a poor run of form.
As was to be expected, Lee Johnson made a host of changes for the clash with five switches to the side that started at Wembley.
Dion Sanderson, Jake Vokins, Carl Winchester, Jack Diamond and Conor McLaughlin were all handed starts while Jordan Jones and Aiden O’Brien remained absent.
It was Sunderland who began brightly and they twice forced Toby Savin into early saves – the Accrington stopper first gathering Lynden Gooch’s scuffed shot before then getting down well to palm away Jack Diamond’s low strike.
The host’s best openings were coming from set pieces as they took every opportunity to load the opposition box.
Michael Nottingham connected well with one corner before a goalmouth ensued, only for the defender’s attempts to force the ball home to be thwarted by the referee’s whistle as he spotted an infringement.
Sunderland grew into the game as the half progressed and almost took the lead via a set piece of their own. Aiden McGeady’s corner was cleared back to the winger before his second delivery was almost turned into his own net by home striker Dion Charles – whose blushes were spared by a fingertip save from Savin.
From the resultant corner, Gooch fired narrowly over before as the Black Cats piled on the pressure.
But the were almost undone on the counter-attack as a long ball forward set Smyth through on goal. Jake Vokins, though, did well to narrow the angle and the eventual shot was dragged well wide.
Both sides had a chance apiece before the break, but neither Luke O’Nien nor Harvey Rodgers could steer their headers on target.
With large parts of the opening period played in the air, Johnson changed tact at half-time and introduced January signing Stewart for his debut.
And the striker almost made an immediate impact as he sent a dipping header narrowly over the bar after being picked out by McGeady.
He wouldn’t have to wait long for a first goal for the Wearsiders, though, as another fine header – this time from a looping Gooch cross – beat Savin and handed Sunderland the lead their endeavour had deserved.
Wyke could have doubled the lead shortly after but saw his dinked shot over Savin cleared by Burgess, before Michael Nottingham failed to turn home a near-post cross at the other end.
The late stages of the game were largely scrappy but Burge didn’t have a save to make as Sunderland defended their lead with minimal fuss.
And as the game ticked into its final minutes the lead was doubled – as Wyke steered home Max Power’s fine corner to make sure of the win.
It takes Sunderland’s unbeaten run in all competitions to ten games, while cutting the gap to the automatic promotion places to two points.
Sunderland XI: Burge; McLaughlin, O’Nien, Sanderson; Gooch (Leadbitter 85), Winchester, Power, Vokins (McFadzean 88); McGeady (Scowen 69), Diamond (Stewart 45), Wyke (Maguire 88)
Subs not used: Matthews, Younger:
Goals: Stewart 62, Wyke 86
Bookings: Gooch 45, McGeady 58
Accrington XI: Savin, Nottingham, Hughes, Burgess, Smyth, McConville, Barclay, Rodgers, Charles, Phillips (Russell 78), Morgan (Butcher 78)
Subs not used: Isherwood, Maguire, Scully, Martin, Mansell
Bookings: Nottingham 20, Smyth 5