Stung by their recent form and fired up by Joey Barton Bristol Rovers competed ferociously on home turf by Aiden O’Brien’s first-half goal secured three crucial points for the Black Cats.
It was a tense, tight game but a test that Lee Johnson’s side more than stood up to.
They created by far the better chances throughout, Aiden McGeady a constant threat from set-piece situations.
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Only a raft of good saves from Anssi Jaakkola prevented them extending their second-half lead and it was only in a nervy final few minutes that Lee Burge was called into significant action.
Barton had raised the temperature ahead of the game by taking aim at his predecessors and from the off, there was a response from his team at least in their endeaour and physicality.
Their front three pressed aggressively and competed fiercely with Sunderland’s defence, and through the opening stages there was little in it.
Sunderland looked to go over the press quickly with O’Brien restored to the XI, but they were struggling for any real spell of possession.
McGeady flashed one effort just over the crossbar, but Rovers were proving tricky opponents and perhaps should have taken the lead when Jonah Ayunga pounced on a poor touch from Dion Sanderson and fired just wide
The Black Cats may not have been fluid from open play but one advantage they did have was a regular set piece threat.
They forced the first save from Ansi Jaakkola when a quick free kick sprung Gooch clear, the rebound nodded just wide by Charlie Wyke.
O’Brien in particular was getting free with ease, heading a McGeady corner just wide.
The warning was not heeded, and though the Irishman scuffed his next effort, Jaakkola had no chance as it rolled into the bottom corner.
The home side were proving to be combative opponents, a bruising encounter showing no sign of settling into a more sedate rhythm as the second half began to progress.
The positive for Sunderland was that Lee Burge had rarely been tested and it was McGeady who had the first meaningful effort of the half when he knocked a cross from Power just over the bar on the hour mark.
Sunderland were beginning to gain some control over the game, finding McGeady in more advanced positions with an encouraging regularity.
It almost yielded a second when his low cross found O’Brien, whose first-time effort flashed just over the bar.
Johnson’s side were on top and he moved to shore up their position in the game by moving to a 4-3-3, with Ross Stewart and Grant Leadbitter introduced.
The quick free kick almost came off again with fifteen minutes left on the clock, Jaakkola this time denying Wyke as he gathered a quick delivery from McGeady.
The Irishman was at the heart of Sunderland’s play and smashed the post with another terrific free kick as the game entered the final ten minutes.
Sunderland were continuing to be the side threatening goal and Jaakkola was called into action again to deny Wyke.
That profilgacy made for a tense conclusion but a smart save from Burge to deny substitute Tutonda secured the points.