Sunderland close on Derby

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The Independent Online
JON CULLEY

Oldham Athletic 1 Sunderland 2

The contest for the championship of the Endsleigh League is becoming every bit as tense as the battle for the Premiership. Victory for Sunderland, their sixth in succession, cut Derby's lead at the top of the First Division to a single point.

Kevin Ball's goal four minutes from time, when he headed home Martin Scott's free-kick, also left Oldham in deepening difficulty at the other end of the table. Sunderland, moreover, have a game in hand on Derby, and there is a growing conviction on Wearside that the regeneration of football in the North-east is about to witness its third phase. Peter Reid was properly respectful of Derby's achievements so far after their 20-match unbeaten run was ended on Saturday, but Sunderland's challenge appears to be gaining momentum at just the right time.

By contrast, Reid's old Everton team-mate, Graeme Sharp, presides over a team looking increasingly vulnerable, with two wins from 15 matches before last night. This contest could not have began less auspiciously for him when Michael Gray, released by Craig Russell's astute pass in the 11th minute, waited for Paul Gerrard to race out of his area before calmly chipping his third goal of the season.

It was the signal for a string of chances. Paul Stewart's low cross towards Gray was nearly turned into his own goal by Craig Fleming, while Gerrard fumbled a Russell header and Steve Agnew wasted an opportunity by blazing high.

But Oldham's enthusiasm could not be questioned. They were rewarded with an equaliser a minute before half-time when Sean McCarthy's attempt was blocked and the ball sat up nicely for Lee Richardson to drive home from 15 yards.

Sunderland's eagerness to maintain their sequence of wins gave Oldham much defending to do in the second half. And it was only with increasing desperation that they held out as long as they did.

Oldham Athletic (4-4-2): Gerrard; Fleming, Snodin, Redmond, Makin; Halle, Hughes, Richardson, Gannon (Graham, 65); McCarthy, Barlow (Beresford, 80). Substitute not used: Hallworth (gk).

Sunderland (4-4-2): Given; Kubicki, Ord, Howey, Scott; Agnew, Ball, Bracewell, M Gray; Russell, Stewart. Substitutes not used: P Gray, Bridges, Hall.

Referee: K Breen (Liverpool).

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