Sunderland finally brought an end to their wretched run of form as Mike Dodds picked up his first win of this his third spell as interim head coach with victory over Cardiff City.

Sunderland eased any lingering fears they could be dragged into a relegation battle during the Championship's final run of games after first half strikes from Adil Aouchiche and Jobe Bellingham were enough to end a seven-game winless run stretching back to early February.

Aouchiche converted from the penalty spot after Jobe had been brought down before the Frenchman then turned provider for Jobe to power in from close range to double the lead - a lead they could have added to late in the second half.

We Are Sunderland reflects on Sunderland's first away win of 2024:


Sunderland's fast start

Ahead of kick-off, Sunderland had dropped into the bottom half of the Championship table following Bristol City’s win over title chasers Leicester City at Ashton Gate in what was another sign of just how far the club have dropped off in 2024.

With fears over how they would react to the international break, those who made the trip to South Wales will have still been cautious about what was happening over their shoulders and whether the gap would close over the Easter weekend – the torrential downpour ahead of the game encapsulating the mood at the Stadium of Light of late.

But after a fairly reserved opening, in which Cardiff were allowed to dominate possession more than their stats would suggest – the Bluebirds one of the Championship’s bottom six teams when it comes to possession of the ball compared to Sunderland, behind only Leeds United, Southampton and Leicester, Dodds' side began to rediscover their mojo.

Aouchiche had gifted a turnover to Josh Bowler, who saw an effort find the side netting of Anthony Patterson’s goal before Sunderland were handed a reprieve themselves as they benefited from an equally poor turnover of possession from the home side which allowed Jobe to advance into the area and go down under contact from Dimitrios Goutas which allowed referee Jeremey Simpson to point to the spot.

Erol Bulut was perplexed in his technical area at the awarding of what, on initial inspection, seemed a soft decision. But it was perhaps what Sunderland have needed – providing they could convert.

And convert they did as Aouchiche, starting back-to-back games, stepped up and hammered down the middle for just his second goal of the season to give Sunderland the lead.

Like a light switch, Sunderland’s mentality changed as they oozed the kind of confidence which has been bereft over the course of the last two or three months. Players were showing for the ball, they were slick in possession and they were creating chances – something else they have struggled to do all too frequently of late in the absence of Jack Clarke.

Abdoullah Ba might have doubled the lead soon after when testing Ethan Horvath low to his right at the near post before Chris Rigg missed a golden opportunity when racing clear from a clever ball from Jobe – Horvath staying big to deny England’s under-17s captain in what was otherwise another terrific showing from the teenager beyond his years.

But Sunderland’s fast start was compounded before the half hour with a second goal they fully justified as Trai Hume’s excellent deft chip found Aouchiche in plenty of space in the penalty area, with the Frenchman doubling his assists tally for the season as well when picking out Jobe at the back post.

Sunderland’s fast start settled any hesitancy ahead of the game as we saw the kind of football which was commonplace at times last season and early this. Dodds’ side enjoyed a first half xG of over 2.0 – their highest in 2024 across any game in full. Even taking Aouchche’s penalty (0.79) out of the equation, they still enjoyed an xG greater than 1.0, something they hadn’t managed in any of their four games heading into the international break.

We Are Sunderland: Jobe Bellingham scored his seventh goal of the season in Sunderland's win over Cardiff CityJobe Bellingham scored his seventh goal of the season in Sunderland's win over Cardiff City (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Chris Rigg and Jobe Bellingham enjoy the benefits of differing international breaks

Having seen a number of first team players return to action over the international break when completing valuable minutes in the club’s under-21s programme, there was an element of intrigue as to how Dodds would line his side up at the Cardiff City Stadium, given the unrelenting run of poor form ahead of the break.

Perhaps two of the surprises in the side came in both Jobe and Rigg - two players who, in the end, reaped the rewards of the international break in differing ways.

Jobe has been an ever present in his debut season at the Stadium of Light, to his own detriment at times you could argue - given the demands placed upon the 18-year-old. Likewise Rigg, who possesses talent in abundance, but remains just 16-year-old. Sunderland’s handling of the international break with both was immaculate, however, as both came back refreshed to contribute hugely to Sunderland ending their barren run of form.

Rigg enjoyed a stellar international break as he captained England’s under-17s to the European Championship’s in Cyprus later this year with a goal and a number of assists in wins over Northern Ireland and Hungary for Greg Lincoln’s side – the Sunderland midfielder sure to be involved in May for the young Three Lions.

Meanwhile, the club made the decision to swerve Jobe’s involvement in the national youth set-up in order for the teenager to take a well earned break from football.

"We're very respectful to the international teams but our injury list at the moment isn't the best and for someone at 18 who has played the amount of games he has at the level he has, we felt it was more sensible for him to have a breather,” explained Dodds.

"He only came in for a couple of days over the two weeks, we gave him an extended period off to rest and recover.”

And both players looked energised to be back in a Sunderland shirt, Jobe leading the line and Rigg drifting from the right. Rigg was busy and, much like in the defeat to Leicester, looked as though he belonged at this level with a number of clever passes with both the inside and outside of his boot and timing of his runs to cause no end of problems to Josh Wilson-Esbrand, who was duly substituted at the break which gives you an idea as to the joy Rigg had down that side of the field.

The teenager may have missed a big chance to double Sunderland’s lead , but he never let that bother him and continued to impress in the game into the second half, with his positioning allowing Aouchiche to continue in the No.10 role just behind Jobe.

For Jobe, he proved why he is Sunderland’s best option up front for the remainder of the season, given Sunderland’s struggles in that area of the field throughout the campaign. It was Jobe who capitalised on a cheap turnover in possession from Cardiff to win the penalty before he then made a smart run to find himself in an opportune area to convert Aouchiche’s cross for his seventh goal of the season.

The goal visibly brought a boost in confidence for Jobe who soon tried his luck from distance after receiving a smart ball from Pierre Ekwah. The attempt at goal may have been comfortable for Horvath, but the desire to take a strike at goal as opposed to looking for a simple pass demonstrated the lift in confidence – something he also carried throughout the game, particularly in his defending from the front in the second half.

Jobe was the toast of the away following who serenaded his name at full-time which, again, demonstrates how much of an impact he had on the game in what was, arguably, his standout performance in a red and white shirt.

We Are Sunderland: Chris Rigg produced another strong performance in the Sunderland starting line-upChris Rigg produced another strong performance in the Sunderland starting line-up (Image: Ian Horrocks)


Styles justifies left-back selection

Another of those interesting decisions came in defence as Dodds opted for Callum Styles at left-back, with both Leo Hjelde and Aji Alese on the bench.

Alese, perhaps, you could understand, given the need to remain cautious over his return to the side. Having recently agreed a new deal at the Stadium of Light, the club will be keen to ensure they can maximise their output from the defender rather than see him break down once more should they misjudge his return. But Hjelde’s absence may have been a surprise given his regular involvement since arriving in January.

Dodds’ decision is likely to have centred around the importance of Cardiff’s right-hand-side with both Perry NG and Bowler. NG is Cardiff’s top goal contributor with six goals and four assists, while Bowler is often a threat cutting in from the right.

But despite giving an early free kick away up against Bowler, which provided the home side the chance to build on their impressive set piece record this season with 19 goals coming from dead-ball situations, the Hungarian managed both well – typified by remaining calm after picking up a relatively needless booking midway through the half.

Styles got around 75 minutes under his belt having done his job in nullifying the threat from Cardiff on the right – the focus of their attacks in the second half switching to the left hand side, before being replaced by Hjelde to close out the game.

Dodds admitted recently there were question marks surrounding Styles’ best position and while that debate will remain open, this was undoubtedly his best display since joining on loan from Barnsley in January.


Second half consistency and having key players back

To all intents and purposes, Sunderland got the job done in this game in the first half having taken a two-goal lead into the break. From there on it was about managing the game and searching for an element of consistency across a 90-minute period – something which has also been lacking for large parts this season.

While Cardiff may have turned up the dial slightly in the second half, Sunderland were largely untroubled as they remained a threat on the break themselves with Dan Neil going close when stroking narrowly wide. The home side had strong penalty appeals waved away midway through the second half which might have caused a bit of concern, but Dodds will be happy with how his side navigated things.

A large part of that is down to having key personnel back. Dodds was able to call upon his captain, Luke O’Nien, again from suspension alongside Dan Ballard for just the second time during this interim spell in charge. Ekwah is another who returned to the side following a period out of the team and a dressing down from Dodds and looked back to his best, while there were also options on the bench.

We Are Sunderland: Mike Dodds had Luke O'Nien and Dan Ballard available for just the second time in his tenureMike Dodds had Luke O'Nien and Dan Ballard available for just the second time in his tenure (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Having featured for the under-21s over the break, Dodds was able to include Alese and Bradley Dack on the bench as well as Patrick Roberts. Although only Dack of the trio was called into action in the closing stages, simply having them as options made Sunderland’s bench both look and feel stronger, without as much reliance on academy players to occupy seats. Sunderland's reward? Three points and a clean sheet.


Sunderland end their barren run and finally win away from home again

The biggest objective for Dodds over this Easter period was to bring an end to Sunderland’s wretched run of form, which stood at six defeats and one draw heading into the long trip to South Wales.

Dodds had overseen five of those games and given he expressed his most displeasure at Sunderland’s recent outing with Queens Park Rangers, the only game which yielded a point for him, was telling as to where they have found themselves of late. Had that run extended beyond this game and into Easter Monday’s meeting with Blackburn Rovers, both the pressure and apathy levels will only have grown.

We Are Sunderland: Mike Dodds earned his first win of his third spell in interim charge of Sunderland against Cardiff CityMike Dodds earned his first win of his third spell in interim charge of Sunderland against Cardiff City (Image: Ian Horrocks)

As it happens, Sunderland now move back into the top half of the Championship table and ease any slight relegation fears with their first win since early February and their first away win since Boxing Day’s success over Hull City. And to top it off, they did so by keeping a clean sheet, a second successive clean sheet for the first time since September where they followed up a 3-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Watford.

It doesn’t bring an end to all of Sunderland’s problems, but at long last, supporters are able to go home without that sinking feeling of a defeat.

Dodds has suggested on numerous occasions how he believes all it will take is one win for his side to transpire into a positive run of form, there isn’t long to wait to find out if Sunderland can back this result up.