Sunderland escape the dreaded Hall of Shame

Preston North End 0 Sunderland 2
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The Independent Football

Sunderland ended their run of League defeats in resounding style yesterday, stopping one short of the 18-game record set by Darwen in 1898-99. After 17 successive losses in the Premiership and First Division, and with a place in football's Hall of Shame beckoning, they beat Preston North End at Deepdale comfortably.

The goalscorers that ensured Darwen remained the outright holders of the unenviable record were Sean Thornton and Marcus Stewart, whose strong running and clever passing was the difference between the teams. Stewart, starting his first League game of the season, was the catalyst for Sunderland's return to some semblance of form against an insipid Preston side.

Stewart created Sunderland's opening goal in the fourth minute, unleashing a shot that the Preston goalkeeper Jonathan Gould pushed into the path of Sean Thornton, who finished from close range.

Stewart, who scored just once in the Premiership last season, doubled Sunderland's advantage after 40 minutes. Having already had a near-miss and another shot blocked by Gould after half-an-hour, Stewart refused to be denied again. He muscled past Michael Jackson, the Preston defender, turned and fired a shot into the corner of the helpless Gould's net.

Remarkably, given their wretched recent run, Sunderland were good value for their advantage. Before yesterday they had not scored two goals in a League match since December, but they might have been four-up at halftime. As well as Stewart's trio of chances, Matthew Piper hit a post after racing on to a through ball and rounding Gould, who was afforded precious little protection by his defence.

Preston had a penalty appeal turned down, when a cross from Eddie Lewis appeared to strike Thornton on the arm, shortly before Stewart scored. They also went close through Dickson Etuhu, a powerful midfielder in the mould of Patrick Vieira, in first-half stoppage time. But Sunderland were dealing comfortably with whatever Preston threw at them.

Sunderland seemed content to soak up Preston pressure in the second half, and the home team rarely threatened to find a way back into the match. Gary Breen and George McCartney, who played at centre-back for Sunderland after the withdrawal of Ben Clark in the first half, stood up well to a barrage of high balls.

On the rare occasions that Sunderland, who kept their first clean sheet since January yesterday, were prised open, Preston were foiled by the impressive goalkeeper Mart Poom. He made two excellent saves in the final 15 minutes to deny Ricardo Fuller and Etuhu when a goal might yet have dented Sunderland's fragile confidence.

But after so many months of heartache, this was the Black Cats' day. They might still be £30m in debt and without most of the players that propelled them to successive seventh-place finishes in the Premiership in 2000 and 2001, but at last they can celebrate a League victory.

"Sunderland are back," chanted the away support. Maybe not, but this was an important first step towards respectability.

Preston North End 0 Sunderland 2
Thornton 4, Stewart 41

Half-time 0-2 Attendance: 14,018