BOB Stokoe celebrated the first win of his second stint in command of Sunderland, as Gary Bennett’s close-range finish clinched three precious points at Shrewsbury.
Stokoe, out of luck in his first two games in caretaker charge - a 3-2 loss to Bradford and a 1-1 draw with Leeds – steered his side out of the Second Division drop zone with victory at Gay Meadow.
Sunderland, though, were still deep in trouble, sitting only two points clear of second-bottom spot and just one ahead of third-bottom Hull going into the final four matches.
Stokoe told the Echo: “It was a bit scrappy as a match, but it’s been so many games since the last win, the result was all that matters.
“There was a lot of anxiety from both sides, who were keen not to give anything away,
“However, Shrewsbury had two good wins behind them, scoring six goals, so a clean sheet on top of the victory will have done wonders for Iain Hesford’s confidence.”
Hesford was guilty of a dreadful blunder in the Leeds game days earlier, but Sunderland produced a solid defensive display to shut out the Shrews, who sat one place and one point above the Rokermen following their defeat.
Mark Proctor forced a spectacular save from Shrewsbury keeper Steve Perks, then home defender Wayne Williams cleared off the line to deny Gordon Armstrong as Sunderland held sway.
Perks kept out a fine Armstrong drive before the vital goal arrived in the 67th minute, with luck, for once, going the Wearsiders’ way as the referee over-ruled his linesman to award Sunderland a throw in the home half.
Armstrong fed Reuben Agboola and the full-back’s centre was met by Proctor, whose goal-bound effort was finished off a few yards out by Gary Bennett, on the volley, to leave Perks helpless.
Bennett was close to a second, driving a fierce shot just wide, but was then required at the back to successfully quell Shrewsbury’s attempts to equalise when they laid siege to Hesford’s goal in the closing stages.
Stokoe, relieved with the win ahead of a crunch midweek clash with fellow strugglers Bradford, said: “It was not a good footballing day, but it has been a great day for Sunderland, and that’s my only concern.”
Former Sunderland and Shrewsbury boss Alan Durban took in the game and hailed the visitors’ application and organisation.
He told the Echo: “One goal was always going to settle it, though I thought Shrewsbury were a little unlucky to lose.
“The big difference was the experience of the Sunderland players.
“Eric Gates was brilliant. He made it look all so easy the way he brought the ball down from throw-ins and then knocked it on to a colleague.
“There is no way they will go down. Their supporters were magnificent and they will make sure they stay up with three of the last four matches at Roker Park.”
Sadly, Durban is no Nostradamus, and defeat to Bradford three days after the Shrewsbury win put the Rokermen back in the mire. Defeat to Barnsley on the final day, after leading 2-0, saw Stokoe’s men finish third bottom to enter the play-offs, which ended in ignominy and a first ever relegation to Division Three, going down to Gillingham in the two-legged semi-final.