WHEN promotion-chasing sides like Sunderland narrowly overcome relegation-threatened teams like Bristol Rovers, it usually has all the hallmarks of a routine result.

From a distance, the Black Cats’ victory at the Memorial Ground looks just that but appearances can be deceptive.

It may have seemed pretty ordinary for those watching Sunderland’s resurgence under Lee Johnson, but on a broader level it verged on the extraordinary.

For, thanks to Aiden O’Brien’s first-half winner, not only did Sunderland finally get one over on Joey Barton the manager after six failed attempts but this was a very much a cathartic victory.

It was here in the West Country a year ago that Sunderland slipped to a devastating 2-0 defeat against a struggling side that denied the Black Cats a shot at the play-offs.

That meek surrender proved to be Sunderland’s last game of a season curtailed by Covid-19 restrictions and spelled the beginning of the end for Phil Parkinson as manager.

It was the defining game of the campaign and painful memories would have revived for Sunderland players and then owner Stewart Donald who returned to the Memorial Ground with close ally Charlie Methven

The Sunderland ‘Til I Die documentary stars, who still retain minority shares in the club, came to show their support and will have headed home knowing the future is looking bright on Wearside under Johnson.

And Donald can take particular pride in the fact that he hired Johnson last December before handing Stadium of Light control to Kyril Louis-Dreyfus as a new majority shareholder.

With games in hand on leaders Hull and second-placed Peterborough, this was a win that suggested it is only a matter of time before Sunderland force their way into the automatic promotion places.

O’Brien’s volleyed winner not only made it eight League One wins and two draws since defeat at Shrewsbury at the start of last month, but it should also have got any lingering self-doubt out of Sunderland’s system.

This was a game that Sunderland dominated with just one scare early in the first-half when Rovers played with a menace befitting a Barton side and then one very late on when Lee Burge denied David Tutonda.

Those moments would have got Johnson’s pulse racing but aside from that the former Bristol City manager would have found his return to his hometown surprisingly comfortable.

But for an impressive show by Rovers goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola his team would have improved their goal difference and avoided a tense finale.

The evergreen Aiden McGeady, brought in from the cold by Johnson after his ostracism under Parkinson, remains key to the upturn in fortunes, playing with a boyish enthusiasm despite the fact he will turn 35 this Sunday.

The former Celtic player’s uncanny knack of always being able to find space for himself not only keeps him one step ahead of his opponents but more often than not he will make good use of possession.

That doesn't sound a lot, but in an environment where possession is yielded all too frequently, having someone like McGeady in your side can make all the difference.

On top of that, the Irishman has that deftness at set-pieces, which is key, as, proved when O’Brien knocked in his colleague’s 39th minute corner, which put Sunderland in command.

His set-play prowess also came to the fore later on when his curling free-kick clattered against a post.

Had O’Brien or Charlie Wyke copied McGeady’s composure in the penalty box then the margin of victory could have been more handsome.

That explained why Johnson would later say that his players needed to play with “fire in their belly but more ice in the head” because clinical finishing will be key in the promotion run-in (as shown by Peterborough’s 7-0 crushing of Accrington, which improved Posh's goal difference significantly at the weekend).

As it was, Sunderland held firm in defence, aside from loud appeals for a penalty when Gas striker Brandon Hanlan collided with Luke O’Nien in stoppage time.

Referee Ollie Yates ignored the appeals, from pitch, touchline and dozens of folk in the posh seats, prompting Barton to claim there was a conspiracy against his club among officials as he “feels like there’s an agenda somewhere”.

The Newcastle United cult hero had already made his protests known to the referee in the centre-circle following the final whistle while Johnson cut a serene figure as he exchanged fist-bumps with Rovers coaches.

Barton, who has masterminded just two wins in ten as Rovers boss, said the decision was “soul-destroying” but this was a victory that was good for the Sunderland soul ahead an Easter double-header that will see Oxford visit the Stadium of Light on Good Friday before the Black Cats head to Peterborough three days later.