Sunderland climb to fifth as Charlie Wyke's header edges them past Tranmere Rovers in woeful conditions
Sunderland have climbed to fifth in the League One table after edging past Tranmere Rovers in a hard-fought battle at Prenton Park.
An excellent header from Charlie Wyke midway through the second half proved to be the difference, the forward stooping to meet an excellent ball from Chris Maguire.
It sees Sunderland move to within five points of the top, still with a game-in-hand on Rotherham and Wycombe in the automatic places.
They were again well short of their fluent best but that was to be expected in the conditions, and they also registered their fourth clean sheet in as many games.
Pre-match attentions had been focused heavily on a desperately poor Prenton Park pitch, and though it initially looked to be in a state improved from when Manchester United visited at the weekend, the way it cut up during the warm-ups hinted at what was ahead.
The bounce of the ball proved totally unreliable throughout an attritional contest, neither side able to build any sustained spells of possession.
Phil Parkinson had made just one chnage from the contest, handing a full debut to Bristol City loanee Bailey Wright. Alim Ozturk was perhaps unfortunate to drop out of the squad entirely, with Tom Flanagan returning to the squad.
It was Wright who should have put the Black Cats ahead with just minutes on the clock. Charlie Wyke did well to win a free-kick, which Chris Maguire floated towards the back post. Joel Lynch rose well and nodded it across goal, where Wright could only turn it over the bar from a matter of yards.
That boded well for Sunderland, but in truth they desperately struggled to create any openings thereafter.
Tranmere Rovers missed a major opening shortly after, Kane Wilson wriggling clear of his marker well in the midfield area. His pass through to Kieron Morris was excellent, but the midfielder’s touch was far too heavy and allowed Jon McLaughlin to gather.
The home side were again able to play their way through the midfield minutes later, and this time it was striker Morgan Ferrier who missed a decent opening, dragging his shot wide.
Ferrier was lively and a handful throughout the opening stages, offering his side an outlet that the Black Cats were clearly lacking.
The Black Cats too often were forced to go long but Wyke was struggling to hold it up and there was little movement around him.
Tranmere were the better side, though in truth that said little in what was a painfully pedestrian contest.
Despite their control of possession and territory, they rarely tested McLaughlin, the Scot making a smart stop from a Wilson free-kick but otherwise untested.
The second half began much as the first hand ended, though Sunderland saw a glimmer of an opportunity when Max Power crunched into a superb challenge near the halfway line.
He released Maguire who spotted the run of Gooch, the attacking midfielder just unable to control the ball before it ran beyond him and out for a goal kick.
There remained little between the two teams, but Sunderland have been a regular threat from set pieces in recent weeks and it was from that avenue that they took the lead just before the hour.
Luke O’Nien did well to draw the foul near the byline on the right flank, Maguire whipping a dangerous ball into the front post. Wyke stooped to head and the home side couldn’t prevent the ball creeping into the bottom corner.
It had felt throughout as if the first goal would be crucial, such were the difficulties both sides were facing in producing any kind of coherent attacking play in the conditions.
Though Tranmere threw on another striker, they were struggling to make inroads and Parkinson’s side were more than happy to keep things simple.
It was they who came closest to scoring when a loose ball broke for Gooch, who thumped an effort just over the crossbar with just under 20 minutes to play.
Tranmere were offering little even as Sunderland dropped deeper, the Black Cats repelling a number of balls into the box.
The crucial moment came just over five minutes from the end, as Dobson drove into the Tranmere half.
Manny Monthe brought him down and the referee, who had infuriated both sets of supporters throughout the contest, booked him for a second time.
That effectively finished the game as a contest as Sunderland saw it out with ease, Josh Scowen briefly coming off the bench to make his Black Cats debut.
Sunderland XI: McLaughlin; O’Nien, Willis, Wright, Lynch, Hume; Power, Dobson; Gooch, Maguire (Scowen, 89), Wyke
Subs: Burge, Flanagan, McLaughlin, McNulty, Lafferty, Leadbitter
Tranmere Rovers XI: Davies; Caprice, Clarke, Monthe, Ridehalgh (Mullin, 66); Morris, Woodyard, Perkins (Gilmour, 81), Wilson; Ferrier (Payne, 77), Jennings
Subs: Pilling, Nelson, Potter, Spellman
Bookings: Dobson, 23 Lynch, 48 Monthe, 73 Wilson, 77 Maguire, 87 Woodyard, 90
Red Card: Monthe, 84