FOR Accrington Stanley last week, read Rochdale this. Sunderland travelled to the North-West for the second time in seven days, and for the second time in seven days, were able to head back across the Pennines with an away win. Just to add to the sense of déjà vu, Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke found the net on both occasions.

The competition was different, with last night’s win having come in the league rather than the Carabao Cup, and whereas Sunderland had outplayed Accrington, they were forced to dig much deeper to see off a Rochdale side that played the better football for long spells.

The final outcome was the same though, and with a home win over promotion rivals Portsmouth having sandwiched the two away successes, Jack Ross can reflect on a satisfying week. The pressure that was building in the wake of a stuttering start to the season has been significantly released.

It didn’t always look like that would be the case last night, and even after McGeady had secured a lead that was against the run of play, Sunderland found themselves pegged back when Callum Camps swept home shortly before the break.

Ross cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines at that stage, but his decision to introduce Will Grigg at the start of the second half proved crucial. Whereas Wyke had been an isolated figure for much of the first half, Grigg’s presence alongside him asked new questions of the Rochdale defence. Those questions were not adequately answered, with Grigg sparking the move that ended with Wyke sweeping home the winner.  

With Marc McNulty unavailable because of injury, Ross had to choose between Grigg and Wyke for a starting spot. Grigg would have been a like-for-like replacement for McNulty, but having praised Wyke’s impact from the substitutes’ bench against Accrington and Portsmouth, the Sunderland boss went with the more physical option. Perhaps when AFC Wimbledon visit the Stadium of Light on Saturday, he will opt to play both together from the outset.

Wyke was involved in both of Sunderland’s goals, helping the Black Cats shrug off a sluggish start to open the scoring shortly before the half-hour mark.

Up until that point, they had struggled to get going, with passes going astray and neither Grant Leadbitter nor Max Power establishing any kind of control over the heart of midfield.

Chris Maguire flashed a fourth-minute effort over the crossbar, but with Ross becoming increasingly agitated on the touchline, Sunderland were barely able to get into the Rochdale penalty area before they unexpectedly broke the deadlock.

Wyke was the catalyst for the goal, winning an aerial challenge midway inside the opposition half to spark a move that saw the ball slipped into the path of Luke O’Nien as he galloped up the right.

O’Nien delivered a low cross into the area, and after taking a touch to control, an unmarked McGeady slotted a clinical low finish into the bottom left-hand corner. It was a neat conversion, and made it two for the season for the Irishman, who also scored in the North-West last week as he helped fire Sunderland to a Carabao Cup win at Accrington.

The goal sparked raucous celebrations in a packed away end, but they did not last long. Five minutes later, and Rochdale were deservedly back on level terms.

The hosts were the better side throughout the first half, neater in possession, more purposeful when they broke into the box and especially adventurous down their right-hand side.

Conor McLaughlin is not a natural left-back, and his limitations were repeatedly exposed as winger Stephen Dooley and Rochdale’s 16-year-old right-back, Luke Matheson, doubled up on him. With Denver Hume also having struggled in the early weeks of the season, it is easy to see why Ross is so desperate to recruit another left-back before the transfer window closes at the start of next month.

Camps had already wasted a good opportunity by shooting into the side netting by the time Sunderland scored, and the midfielder was not to be denied when he found himself in space again as Stephen Dooley pulled the ball back from the left-hand side. With the Black Cats’ centre-halves standing off him, Camps calmly side-footed past Jon McLaughlin’s right hand.

Rochdale were screaming for a penalty moments later when a cross from the left-hand side appeared to strike Jordan Willis on the arm – thankfully, from a Black Cats perspective, VAR is yet to make it to League One – and while the interval arrived to check their momentum, the hosts picked up where they had left off at the start of the second half, with Oliver Rathbone shrugging off O’Nien before firing in a low shot that Jon McLaughlin turned around the post.

McLaughlin was called into action again moments later, parrying another low effort from Camps after Ian Henderson outmuscled Alim Ozturk, and just ten minutes into the second period, a frustrated Ross decided he had seen enough and replaced the ineffectual Lynden Gooch with Will Grigg.

The switch necessitated a change in formation, with Sunderland switching to an orthodox front two, and had an immediate effect.

Playing much closer to Wyke than any of his team-mates had prior to his arrival, Grigg won a header to set O’Nien scurrying down the right-hand side. His cross was weighted perfectly for McGeady at the back post, and while the Irishman’s header struck Wyke, the ball could hardly have fallen more fortuitously for the visitors.

Wyke swivelled sharply, and from the edge of the six-yard box, the striker was able to sweep home a low finish that crept between the legs of a defender. Having scored in the same fixture last season, the Teessider clearly has a liking for Spotland.

With a lead to defend, Sunderland dropped deep in the closing stages, and were indebted to McLaughlin for three fine late saves.

The first saw him tip Stephen Dooley’s fizzing low strike around the post, while the second saw him claim Ian Henderson’s last-minute effort after the Rochdale skipper turned in the box. The third came deep into stoppage time, with the keeper gratefully claiming Calvin Andrew’s header when the substitute should really have scored from inside the six-yard box.