CHELTENHAM is famous for its horse-racing and, as the town's little-known footballers produced a resolute rearguard action at the Stadium of Light last night, Sunderland's Premiership thoroughbreds came close to seeing their Carling Cup campaign fall at the first fence.

Anthony Le Tallec's extra-time strike eventually earned Mick McCarthy's men a barely-deserved 1-0 win but, after starting the season in disastrous fashion in the Premiership, the club's fortunes plunged even deeper against a side more than 60 places below them in the Football League.

Forget the Gold Cup, as far as the crisis-ridden Black Cats are concerned, this was more like the Donkey Derby.

A place in the third round of the Carling Cup will do little to dispel the air of gloom that is engulfing Wearside and, by matching their illustrious opponents throughout a nondescript 90 minutes, Cheltenham's collection of honest triers exposed the lack of quality in a Sunderland squad struggling to adapt to life in the top-flight.

The Black Cats might have recorded their first competitive victory in almost five months thanks to their efforts in extra-time but, to supporters who have grown accustomed to success in the last two seasons, it felt more like yet another setback.

Not that there was many of them in the ground to witness it. With just 11,969 fans passing through the turnstiles at the Stadium of Light last night - less than a quarter of the ground's capacity - it was clear that the Carling Cup was not a priority for most Sunderland fans.

McCarthy clearly shared that view, making nine changes to the side that drew with West Brom on Saturday and handing a senior debut to 18-year-old full-back Dan Smith.

Some changes were enforced, but most were not as the Black Cats boss trawled the depths of his squad in an attempt to protect some of his senior players and locate the fringe figure able to kick-start this most slow-burning of seasons.

That figure remained elusive during a dreadful game in which Sunderland's under-strength side struggled to break down their lowly League Two opponents.

Cheltenham's defence was well-drilled enough to maintain its shape as the home side probed unsuccessfully down either flank and, as a result, goalscoring opportunities remained few and far between.

Le Tallec should have done better just eight minutes in but, after Nyron Nosworthy steered Christian Bassila's searching long ball into the box, the Liverpool loanee was unable to direct his header under the crossbar.

Le Tallec turned provider midway through the first half as his probing ball sent Jon Stead scampering clear of both Cheltenham centre-halves, only for goalkeeper Shane Higgs to prevent the striker breaking his Sunderland duck with the simplest of saves.

By snatching at the opportunity before he was settled, Stead betrayed the lack of confidence that has hampered him since his £1.8m move from Blackburn in the summer. The problem re-surfaced when he headed Smith's left-wing cross over the top on the stroke of half-time.

At least Stead was prepared to chance his arm though. His Sunderland team-mates were far less adventurous, with the home side's attacking repeatedly foundering on their wingers' inability to deliver telling balls into the box.

Matt Piper, making his first start since New Year's Day, looked understandably rusty on the right while, on the opposite flank, Liam Lawrence proved equally ineffective despite his obvious need to force his way back up the pecking order.

With Cheltenham content to flood midfield, Sunderland were far from stretched at the back. But the visitors' evident lack of ambition merely served to underline the home side's chronic lack of creativity.

Their lack of defensive nous was nearly exposed as well seven minutes after the break as Cheltenham's route one approach almost paid dividends.

The industrious Kayode Odejayi galloped clear of a static Steve Caldwell and, with goalkeeper Ben Alnwick choosing to stay on his line, the striker pulled the ball back to unmarked Grant McCann.

The Northern Ireland international screwed his eventual shot well wide but, with Alnwick having to kick away Ashley Vincent's dangerous low shot shortly after, Sunderland suddenly found themselves under the cosh as the visitors began to commit more men forward.

They were right to do so.

The personnel might have changed from Saturday's dramatic late collapse against West Brom, but the sense of edgy unease in the home side's ranks remained.

It was partially quelled by the introduction of both Andy Welsh and Stephen Elliott, with the latter finally shaking Sunderland out of their slumber in the 69th minute.

The Republic of Ireland international was forced wide after racing onto Caldwell's through ball, but it still needed a combination of the alert Higgs and the back-pedalling Brian Wilson to prevent his goalbound effort from crossing the line.

Still the Black Cats proved unable to find any attacking rhythm though and, as normal time reached its conclusion, it was telling that Cheltenham's tiring defence was barely forced to break sweat.

Sunderland's was and, in stoppage time, Smith, who had earlier been booked for kicking the ball away, ruined a promising debut by tripping Wilson to earn a deserved red card.

That was to be as good as things got for Cheltenham as, with stoppage-time just two minutes old, Le Tallec finally made the breakthrough.

Lawrence's right-wing cross was deflected as it made its way across the six-yard box and the Frenchman calmly converted with a precise half-volley.

Elliott struck the post after Welsh slipped a defence-splitting through ball into his path in the second half of extra-time but, with the home side being forced to play with nine men for a period following an injury to Le Tallec, Sunderland were content to hear the final whistle.