Sunderland continue their march towards the top two with emphatic Bristol Rovers win
A second half red card proved crucial as Sunderland continue their promotion surge with an ultimately emphatic win over Bristol Rovers.
Second half goals from Lynden Gooch, Charlie Wyke and Luke O’Nien saw the Black Cats move within two points of second place in League One.
It had looked as if it could be a frustrating afternoon for the home side, but a red card for Abu Ogogo turned the tide and they seized the initiative superbly.
Manager Phil Parkinson had his name roared in the Roker End as his side put themselves firmly in the promotion pack.
Three wins and three clean sheets had brought Sunderland into the game full of confidence and eager to close the gap to the top of the table even further.
In Bristol Rovers they had an opponent who have struggled for form since the departure of manager Graham Coughlan earlier this season, but who had ended their long winless run with a win over Blackpool last season.
As expected, Parkinson had again resisted the urge to tinker his side, Alim Ozturk replacing Bailey Wright the only change.
The Black Cats boss did spring a surprise on the bench, with Tommy Smith coming straight into the matchday squad as Declan John again missed out.
The message for Parkinson’s first-choice XI was to continue as they had been playing of late, but from the off, the away side showed they were prepared to show some ambition.
Josh Ginnelly is a player who has troubled the Black Cats as a Walsall winger in the past, and alongside Johnson Clarke-Harris, he formed part of a mobile forward line that asked questions of the home defence.
The upside for Sunderland is that it left plenty of space in forward areas, and Chris Maguire was almost an early beneficiary as he flashed an effort from the edge of the box just over the crossbar.
The home side began to take control of the contest, stretching the play and dominating in the wide areas as they have begun to do with heartening regularity on home turf of late.
Charlie Wyke came close when Maguire crossed from the left, his first-term effort just over the bar.
The Black Cats had gone close moments before when Denver Hume’s cross was just cut out, with Tom Flanagan on both occasions causing problems by carring the ball deep into the oppostion half and playing a clever pass into the box.
Sunderland were even closer when Maguire then crossed from the right, Lyndem Gooch inches away from connecting as he slid in front of his marker. The ball ran to the back post where Hume was denied only by a terrific goalline block from Luke Leahy, a follow-up effort from Luke O’Nien also blocked.
At that stage it looked as if the away side might wilt, but to their credit they began to hold the ball a little better and took the sting out of the game.
The tempo of the half dropped considerably, while the home side were also left frustrated by the referee regularly taking time and flow out of the contest.
The Stadium of Light roared for a penalty just before the break when O’Nien burst into the box, but referee Toner judged that Jayden Mitchell-Lawson had won the ball as he challenged.
O’Nien was showing terrific desire to get forward and came so close on the brink of the interval when he attacked a floated cross from Hume, his effort just over the bar.
Sunderland came into the second half looking to up the tempo as they had done early in that first period, but the game continued to broken up regularly in the blustery conditions.
The home side were labouring a touch when they were given a major boos with half an hour to play.
The ball was running deep into the Sunderland half as Maguire shielded it from Abu Ogogo, the midfielder appeared to lash out as he tried to get past him. The referee showed no hesitation in reaching for the red card.
Rovers shuffled their pack quickly and steadied, though the Black Cats came close when Flanagan nodded a Maguire corner just over the bar with twenty minutes to play.
Maguire’s delivery had been Sunderlnd’s best weapon throughout and it was no surprise that it was one of his crosses that eventually proved key.
It was a sweeping counter from the Black Cats, Wyke playing an excellent through ball after spotting Maguire’s run into the channel.
His cross to the near post was ecellent and Gooch, who has suffered a frustrating afternoon until that point, showed tremendous composure to convert on his left foot.
Within a flash, it was game over.
Rovers misjudged a long pass into the halfway line and Wyke was able to race through. He went round the goalkeeper and had the simplest of finishes to put the game to bed.
It was a goal not without controversy, the away bench furious as Alfie Kilgour was down with what they said was a head injury.
They looked well beaten, and shpped a third when Maguire again broke down the right. He looked to have delayed the pass too long but after playing the ball back into the box, O’Nien scored with an effort that took a major deflection and left the goalkeeper helpless.
A delighted home crowd celebrated with gusto and serenaded Parkinson as the Black Cats go into a crucial week in fine fettle.
Sunderland XI: McLaughlin; O’Nien, Willis, Ozturk, Flanagan, Hume; Power, Dobson; Gooch (Semenyo, 81), Maguire (Watmore, 84), Wyke (Lafferty, 85)
Subs: Burge, McLaughlin, Scowen, Smith
Bristol Rovers XI: Blackman, Kilgour, Craig, Leahy, Menayese, Upson (Harries, 84), Clarke, Ogogo, Ginnelly (Barrett, 71), Mitchell-Lawson (Rodman, 63), Clarke-Harris
Subs: Van Stappershoef, Holmes-Dennis, Abraham, Daly
Bookings: Leahy, 7 Gooch, 30 Craig, 54 Ozturk, 57
Red Card: Ogogo, 59