Football: Sunderland scrape past Gradi test

Sunderland 2 Crewe Alexandra 0
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The Independent Online
NORMAL SERVICE was only partially resumed at the jam-packed Stadium of Light yesterday. With a crowd of 41,433 in attendance, a record for the Wearside ground, Sunderland got back on to the winning track and Crewe continued to suffer from points failure.

Beaten at Tranmere on Boxing Day, Sunderland pulled eight points clear of Ipswich at the top of the First Division table thanks to goals in either half by Danny Dichio and Michael Bridges. In doing so they took their haul of League points in 1998 to 103, one more than Swindon's record for a season, but it was a far from momentous performance by the would-be graduates to the Premiership.

Wingless for the fifth match in succession, with Allan Johnston and Nicky Summerbee still on the injured list, Sunderland were static and statuesque throughout a contest controlled, for the most part, by an assured Crewe team who belied their bottom-of-the-table status. Seth Johnson dictated in midfield and Rodney Jack posed persistent problems up front with his pace. Ultimately, though, it was another pointless afternoon for Dario Gradi's side.

They fell behind against the run of play on the quarter-hour. Alex Rae prompted an intricate passing move which culminated in Dichio back-heeling to Niall Quinn on the edge of the Crewe penalty area, then collecting the return pass and firing a low right-foot shot past the diving Jason Kearton.

To Crewe's credit, they made their hosts sweat, passing and probing with a precision far beyond their lowly station. Jack squandered two clear chances and only the alertness of Thomas Sorensen denied the industrious Mark Rivers what would have been a deserved equaliser before the break. The home goal was fortunate survive intact after the break, too, the woodwork sparing Martin Scott the embarrassment of a headed own goal and Sorensen diving full length to keep out a rasping Jack drive.

It took the introduction of Bridges to settle Sunderland's nerves, the young striker holding off two markers to drive home the second goal with 12 minutes left. "He's a good player," Gradi mused afterwards. "I asked Peter Reid if I could buy him last month. I won't tell you what his reply was."

Goals: Dichio (15) 1-0; Bridges (78) 2-0.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Butler, Melville, Scott; Rae (Williams, h-t), Clark, Ball, Gray (McCann, h-t); Dichio, Quinn (Bridges, 60).

Crewe Alexandra (4-4-2): Kearton; Bignot, Unsworth, Foran, Smith; Wright (Lightfoot, 86), Johnson, Charnock (Lunt, 83), Rivers; Jack, Little (Street, 83).

Referee: A Wiley (Burntwood).

Bookings: Sunderland Ball, Makin.

Man of the match: Johnson.

Attendance: 41,433.