AFTER 15 Premier League matches, Steve Bruce finally paired his two leading strikers together for the first time as Sunderland entertained struggling West Ham. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the game would be settled by the first goal of the season to come from one of the club's midfielders.

Jordan Henderson's 34th-minute strike lifted the Black Cats back up to seventh place in the table, and helped banish the memory of last weekend's late defensive collapse against Wolves.

Crucially, it also lifted some of the load off Sunderland's strikers, who have shouldered the club's goalscoring burden manfully all season.

A lack of midfield goals was a major handicap last term, and with the likes of Kieran Richardson, Steed Malbranque and Lee Cattermole showing no sign of breaking their duck any time soon, there is pressure on Henderson to start increasing his goalscoring tally.

Yesterday's strike was only his third in a Sunderland shirt, but the assured manner in which he converted Asamoah Gyan's pull back augurs well for the future. The 20-year-old aspires to be a match for his fellow England internationals Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard - perhaps one day he will also match their exceptional success rate in front of goal.

It is a good job he discovered a goalscoring touch yesterday, as Bruce's eagerly-awaited pairing of Gyan and Darren Bent was hardly an unqualified success.

Gyan laid on the only goal of the game, and forced a decent second-half save from Robert Green with a fierce rising drive.

But Bent was anonymous for lengthy periods, and Danny Welbeck, who had been performing so impressively as a centre-forward, was much less effective as he reverted to the left of midfield.

Perhaps, in time, Bruce will find a formula to get the best out of all three attacking players in the same team. It is still early days, but yesterday's attempt at accommodating the trio in the same line-up raised more questions than it answered.

Henderson's winner meant any grumblings were muted, but prior to its arrival, there had been precious little indication that a breakthrough was imminent.

Sunderland enjoyed plenty of possession throughout, but while Lee Cattermole held things together impressively at the base of midfield, much of the play in front of him lacked coherence and clarity.

Cattermole and Bent fired long-distance efforts straight at Green, while Kieran Richardson blazed over after Welbeck rolled the ball back to him on the edge of the area.

Too much of Sunderland's attacking was both ponderous and predictable, however, with neither Bent nor Gyan looking particularly comfortable in each other's company.

There was little direct link-up play between the duo, who tended to want to occupy the same areas of the field, but at least Gyan's mobility asked questions of the West Ham defence.

The Ghana international is not afraid to pull wide in search of an opening, and one such foray proved the catalyst for Henderson's strike.

Timing his run behind left-back Danny Gabbidon perfectly, Gyan picked up possession from Nedum Onuoha close to the right touchline and displayed an impressive amount of composure as he calmly waited for a team-mate to attack the box.

Henderson was that team-mate, and with Gyan's pull back not requiring him to break his stride, the newly-capped England international calmly side-footed home his first goal of the season.

Henderson's finish was polished, but the goal owed much to Gyan's ingenuity, and the African was at it again two minutes later.

This time he drifted to the left to receive the ball from Phil Bardsley, and after cutting inside towards the edge of the area, he fashioned an impudent chip that sailed over Green but dropped on to the top of the crossbar.

A second goal at that stage might well have killed West Ham off, but after barely breaking into Sunderland's half in the opening 40 minutes, the Londoners, who might well have seen Luis Boa Morte red carded following an early two-footed challenge, ended the opening period on a surprisingly positive note.

Anton Ferdinand had produced a superb challenge in the 26th minute to prevent Carlton Cole breaking free in the box, but the defender's 44th-minute challenge on Jonathan Spector was rather less effective.

Spector, who scored a well-taken double against Manchester United in the week, shrugged it off effortlessly, but directed his subsequent 18-yard shot narrowly wide of the left-hand post.

At least West Ham had reminded Sunderland that the game was not won though, and Avram Grant's side threatened again within four minutes of the interval.

This time it was Cole fashioning a shooting position as he latched on to Victor Obinna's through ball, but while the striker held off the attentions of Ferdinand easily enough, he dragged a scuffed effort across the face of goal.

In truth, that was just about as close as West Ham came, and Sunderland rarely looked like relinquishing their lead during a surprisingly low-key second period.

They rarely looked like adding to it either, though, even if Green had to produce decent saves to deny both Richardson and Gyan midway through the second half.

The goalkeeper's second stop, which saw him palm away Gyan's rising drive to his left-hand side, was unquestionably the save of the game.

It denied Sunderland the cushion of a two-goal lead, and their advantage was almost removed with 11 minutes left.

Obinna found himself in acres of space as he picked up substitute Frederic Piquionne's deflected cross from the right, but while his low strike beat Craig Gordon, it rebounded off the base of the left-hand post.

That was close, but Sunderland also threatened themselves late on. Gyan's through ball for Steed Malbranque should have been collected by Green, but displaying the kind of sloppiness that ultimately curtailed his international career, the shot-stopper spilled the ball to Welbeck.

The youngster directed an instinctive low shot on target, but the covering James Tomkins stuck out a leg to deflect the ball away.

1-0: Henderson (34mins, side-footed home from ten yards after Gyan pulled the ball back from the right)
Bookings: Boa Morte (7, ungentlemanly conduct); Cattermole (9, foul); Cole (39, foul), Parker (90, foul)
Referee: Martin Atkinson (Halifax) - Might have sent Boa Morte off for an early two-footed tackle and seemed reluctant to make a big decision 4
Attendance: 36,940
Entertainment: **
6 Gordon: Didn't have an awful lot to do, but dominated his area well and collected a number of crosses
6 Onuoha: Dealt with Dyer effectively whenever the West Ham midfielder drifted left and tried to push himself forward
7 Ferdinand: Made a superb first-half tackle to deny Cole and dealt with the England international throughout
6 Mensah: Shrugged off a first-half knock to finish the game and was generally in the right place to clear
6 Bardsley: Another strong showing from a player who is starting to look like he has been a left-back all his life
7 Henderson: Stroked home his first goal of the season impressively and was always a threat down the right
8 CATTERMOLE: Controlled the central area, and displayed impressive restraint after an early yellow card
5 Richardson: Never really provided the kind of link between midfield and attack that his manager would have hoped for
6 Welbeck: Couldn't maintain his recent high standards, but is not the same player on the left of midfield
7 Gyan: Stretched the West Ham defence all game and served up a perfectly-weighted pass for Henderson's winner
5 Bent: One of the striker's least effective games in a Sunderland shirt, coinciding with his first league start alongside Gyan
Malbranque (for Bent, 75)
Elmohamady (for Henderson, 86)
Zenden (for Gyan, 90mins)
(not used): Mignolet (gk), Angeleri, Da Silva, Riveros.
WEST HAM UNITED (4-4-2): Green 5; Ben Haim 6 (Faubert 83mins), Upson 5, Tomkins 6, Gabbidon 5; Dyer 4 (Piquionne 69mins, 5), Spector 6, PARKER 6, Boa Morte 5 (Hines 69mins, 5); Cole 6, Obinna 5. Subs (not used): Stech (gk), Reid, Kovac, Barrera
Man Of The Match
LEE Cattermole - Overshadowed the in-form Scott Parker and dominated the midfield battle with some tough tackling and astute short passing