Can it be third time lucky for Lee Johnson's battling Sunderland?

Can it be third time lucky for the Black Cats? Lee Johnson’s battling Sunderland are on the rise with victory at Bristol Rovers after two seasons of heartache in League One

  • Sunderland beat Bristol Rovers 1-0 on Saturday to boost their promotion hopes 
  • Aiden O’Brien scored the winning goal in the first-half after some poor defending
  • The Black Cats are two points behind League One’s automatic promotion slots 
  • There is strong belief Lee Johnson can guide his side out the third tier this term 

The clocks may have gone forward but this time of year is usually when Sunderland slip backwards.

Take their push for an immediate return to the Championship two years ago. At one point in early April, they sat in the second automatic spot with a game in hand only for their promotion dreams to combust during a torrid run of one win in six.

They were still trying to banish the horror of the subsequent 94th-minute play-off final loss to Charlton from their minds when Covid-19 forced the suspension of League One in March last year.

Aiden O’Brein’s first-half goal was enough for Sunderland to beat Bristol Rovers on Saturday

There is belief that Lee Johnson (right) can lead Sunderland out of League One this season

A run of four matches without victory just prior to that shutdown ultimately blew their hopes of a play-off place on the points-per-game formula, consigning them to a third season of third-tier purgatory.

This time, however, things may well be different. Sunderland fans won’t want to get their hopes up and jinx it but there’s a fighting quality about Lee Johnson’s side that should get them home.

You sense that Saturday’s win away to Joey Barton’s Bristol Rovers — a result that took Sunderland three points off the top with games in hand on Hull and Peterborough above them — was a contest they would have drawn or lost in previous years.

O’Brien (second right) turned home Aiden McGeady’s corner in what was the winning goal

It was their 12th match unbeaten in all competitions, a run that included a first Wembley triumph in 48 years in the Papa John’s Trophy final earlier this month and an eighth win in 10 league games.

Johnson has won 16 of 27 games in charge since replacing Phil Parkinson as manager in early December and with the recent takeover of the club by 24-year-old billionaire heir Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, things are progressing at pace.

Aiden O’Brien took advantage of some static Rovers defending to turn in Aiden McGeady’s first-half corner and Sunderland were rarely troubled thereafter.

It was Republic of Ireland international McGeady’s 12th league assist of the season and only Tottenham’s Harry Kane (13) has more in the top four tiers.

Sunderland winger McGeady (right) registered his 12th assist of the season on Saturday

‘It was absolutely off my shin,’ admitted O’Brien. ‘Horrible, but we’ll take them. We are a force to be taken seriously because we have it all. We have the fight, we have the quality and, why not, we can do it this year.

‘We play football with smiles on our faces because when we do that we’re brilliant. We have games in hand on Hull and Peterborough, so with 10 games to play, who has the fire in the belly to bring it home?’

Eight of those games come in an April sprint for the line, including trips to the top two teams that will determine Sunderland’s fate. But they have all the momentum.

Joey Barton’s (left) Bristol Rovers are second-bottom in the third tier two points of safety

The same can’t be said of Rovers, who are second-bottom but only two points from safety. 

Barton has adopted a holistic approach to training, turning teacher last week to educate his players on male psychology and great defenders from football history, from Franco Baresi to Sergio Ramos.

That didn’t show in the soft goal they conceded but Barton remains bullish. ‘We’re not cut adrift,’ he said. ‘We’ve got winnable games in the fixture list but at the minute we’re not doing well, having lost four on the spin. I think it is the first time I’ve experienced that in my managerial career.’

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