Easy ride to top for Sunderland

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The Independent Online

Birmingham City 0 Sunderland 2

If Bryan Robson can manage to hammer the wheels back on to the Middlesbrough wagon, then the Premier League looks likely to have the North-east's big three back in the top division once again next season.

By virtue of this, their seventh successive victory -a new record for the club - Sunderland leapfrogged Derby to go to the top of the First Division table and were certainly more than good value for the three precious points.

Before a hostile Birmingham crowd, which, at 23,000, was the largest of the season at St Andrew's, and facing a side scenting a revival of their own after taking seven points from the last nine, this game carried the threat of a booby-trap for Sunderland.

They defused it with dispiriting ease. Birmingham's candid manager, Barry Fry, commented wryly after the game: "If that's what it takes to get to the top of the First Division, we are a million miles away. It was men against boys."

The visitors' goalkeeper had to make only one save of note, from a Paul Tait shot, allowing Shay Given to keep his 10th clean sheet in 13 matches since joining Sunderland on loan from Blackburn Rovers.

But it was the men in front who were the most impressive, with Andy Melville returning from injury to give a commanding defensive display as well as scoring one and making the other of Sunderland's goals.

For a towering centre-half, he showed considerable guile and agility to dummy Kevin Ball's pass, allowing it to run into the path of the unmarked Steve Agnew, who coolly steered the ball wide of Bart Griemink, the Birmingham goalkeeper.

The centre-half used the more traditional virtues of his breed to rise majestically in the second half and head powerfully home from six yards after another good build-up and fine cross from right-back Darius Kubicki.

As well as overhauling Derby, the victory gives Sunderland an eight-point advantage over third-placed Crystal Palace, but manager Peter Reid warned that the battle was only just beginning: "It's a smashing feeling to be on top, but staying there is harder," he said. "We are there now and we have got to handle the pressure."

Fry added: "The only surprise to me is that we only lost by two goals. I can see them going on to win it by 10 points."

Sunderland are now 4-6 favourites to win the title with William Hill, who make Derby 7-4 and Crystal Palace 6-1.

Goals: Agnew (16) 0-1; Melville (65) 0-2.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Griemink; Bass (Forsyth, 65), Breen, Johnson, Frain; Legg, Samways (Richardson, 65), Tait, Hunt; Barnes, Devlin (Bowen, 65).

Sunderland (4-4-2): Given; Kubicki, Melville, Ord, Scott; Agnew, Ball, Bracewell, M Gray; Stewart (P Gray, 81), Russell (Bridges, 78; Hall, 91).

Referee: W Burns (Scarborough).

Booking: Sunderland Agnew.

Man of the match: Melville. Attendance: 23,251.