Two clubs determined to fight the yo-yo years of relegation, promotion, relegation entered this ground last night with Birmingham City slightly more relaxed about their prospects of avoiding an immediate return to the Championship. But at the end of a wind-blown and injury-interrupted 90 minutes, Sunderland had eased the palpable tension around Wearside with a third consecutive home win featuring a second consecutive clean sheet at the Stadium of Light. On this evidence, Birmingham should be worried.
You could hear the local sighs as Daryl Murphy gave Sunderland a 15th-minute lead and then a roar of belief when the debutant Swedish substitute, Rade Prica, pounced on a Liam Ridgewell error to make it 2-0 midway through the second half. Sunderland, as Roy Keane admitted, were "not brilliant", but they won.
That is six times at home this season but this felt as if it had added value as Keane's team moved from the relegation zone to 14th, two points off Middlesbrough, four off Newcastle. Birmingham were one of the sides Sunderland skipped over and Wigan were another. Steve Bruce's team are the next visitors here. Before then there is a trip to Anfield and Sunderland have yet to win away from home – it is over four months since they won a point on the road.
At the same time Birmingham are at home to Derby, so these two could have switched positions again by Saturday night.
That was one reason why Keane was less than euphoric afterwards. "I don't think the performance was great," he said, "what pleased me more was that we won when not playing well. But tonight was all about the result."
Roy Aitken, Alex McLeish's assistant, was similarly unexcited. "Basic defensive errors have cost us," Aitken said, "but this is going to go to the end and there are 14 games left."
The visitors, who today find out if Gary Cahill will join them from Aston Villa for £4.5m, managed only one shot on target. It was the result of a slip by Jonny Evans, who otherwise contributed to Sunderland's fairly resilient back four.
Failing to intercept a 39th-minute pass, Evans allowed Cameron Jerome to bear down on Craig Gordon but Jerome's shot was straight at the Scot.
Sunderland, playing at a high tempo, were ahead due to Murphy's close-range half-volley that followed a powerful header from Kenwyne Jones. Birmingham's defending was poor. Phil Bardsley had taken the free-kick won by Jones and the full-back signed from Manchester United for £2m had an impressive debut.
But Prica came close to eclipsing Bardsley with 45 minutes of constant movement. Some of this was erratic but Prica took his goal well, lifting Ridgewell's short backward header over the advancing Maik Taylor. That was in the 66th minute and after 10 more Prica had a free six-yard header but missed it with his forehead before touching it with his hand and then bundling it in with his foot. It was disallowed but the crowd reacted as if Prica is already a cult hero. "Fans take to strikers who score," Keane said, "it's a very easy relationship."
Goals: Murphy (15) 1-0; Prica (65) 2-0.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins; Whitehead, Miller, Yorke (Prica, h-t), Stokes (O'Donovan, 63); Jones, Murphy. Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), McShane, Waghorn.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Taylor; Kelly, Ridgewell, Schmitz, Queudrue; Larsson (Forssell, 66), Muamba, Johnson, Kapo; Jerome (Zarate, 66), McFadden. Substitutes not used: Doyle (gk), O'Connor, Parnaby.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).
Booked: Sunderland Prica; Birmingham Kapo, Schmitz, Ridgewell.
Man of the match: Bardsley.
Attendance: 37,674.Reuse content