Goals from Reo Griffiths and Tommy Rowe secured three points for Rovers away at promotion favourites Sunderland.
It was the complete away performance from Rovers who restricted and frustrated Sunderland limiting them to half-chances early on. At the other end, Rovers only created a handful of opportunities but were clinical with Griffiths giving his side the lead on the 22nd minute while Tommy Rowe doubled the lead on half-time with a stunning finish.
Rovers rode their luck at times in the second half with Sunderland hitting the post, but bodies-on-the-line defending and a heroic performance from goalkeeper Jonathan Mitchell meant Corry Evans goal on the 89th minute was only a consolation.
Gary McSheffrey made four changes to the side that lost to Rotherham United in midweek. Ben Jackson and Griffiths both made their first starts for Rovers while Josh Martin returned to the starting XI after missing out on Tuesday evening. Kyle Knoyle – who had missed training in the week through illness – appeared on the bench which handed Ro-Shaun Williams a start alongside Joseph Olowu. Ollie Younger moved to right-back.
The team news on Wearside (and across the whole of the third tier) was Jermain Defoe’s return and his deadline day signing brought a crowd of more than 38,000 to the Stadium of Light - the former England international took up a place on the bench.
It was a patient and disciplined opening for Rovers who stayed in their shape and limited Sunderland to a handful of half-chances. Ross Stewart and Callum Doyle registered a couple of headers on target which were comfortable for Jonathan Mitchell in the Rovers goal, while a very shrewd bit of defending from Ollie Younger snuff out a chance for Dennis Cirkin.
From the quarter of an hour mark, Rovers began to see a bit more of the ball and their directness caused the hosts some real problems. The midfield and defence were unashamedly hitting long balls over the top with the front line of Mipo Odubeko, Charlie Seaman and Griffiths proving very willing runners in behind.
Odubeko took advantage when the Black Cats’ centre-backs left the ball to each other allowing the West Ham loanee to race through the middle and shoot on target, but the ref decided the striker had shown too much aggression in the build-up and awarded a free-kick.
Rovers were afforded their first real chance when foul on Odubeko gave Martin an opportunity to swing a ball into the box. Sunderland held a good defensive line, however, and the ball drifted all the way through for shot-stopper Thorben Hoffman to collect.
The tactics bore fruit for Rovers on the 22nd minute when a perfectly weighted ball by Martin – who was being afforded a lot of time and space in the middle of the park – found the run of Griffiths who was clinical as he dispatched the chance across the keeper.
The goal seemed to breathe new confidence into McSheffrey’s team and Griffiths and Odubeko were inches from linking up again to give the latter a tap-in. It was a period of play which had the 600 Rovers fans out singing the 37,000 home fans.
Martin was next to go close when he picked up on a loose clearance and had an effort blocked while Hoffman pulled off a double save when he denied first Martin, direct from a free kick, and then Olowu from the follow up.
Seaman almost made it two just after the half-hour mark when he picked off a loose ball in the box, but his left-footed strike was deflected onto the post.
Rovers did double their lead right on half-time when Sunderland failed to effectively deal with a corner. The ball bounced around the box a few times before Rowe was on hand to volley right footed into the roof of the net.
Sunderland came out fighting in the second half and Mitchell made two really good stops early on to deny first Alex Pritchard and then Dan Neil from distance and Younger was once again on hand to push Cirkin wide and block a shot.
It took ten minutes for Rovers to register a chance. Rowe skipped beyond one rash challenge in the centre of the park, but things opened up for the skipper with no one in red and white stripes closing him down. He drilled a left-footed shot on target but it was saved by Hoffman.
Rovers began to ride their luck a bit from the hour-mark. Sunderland should have had one back on the hour mark.
Initially, the ball looked like it had drifted out of play for a goal kick, but the officials allowed play to continue. The resulting delivery into the box appeared to be bundled in at the back post, before being clawed away by Mitchell but – once again – the officials didn’t see the ball cross the line. The action did give the home crowd a lift, however, and the volume in the Stadium of Light started to increase.
Missed tackles from Rovers throughout the middle of the park gave Elliot Embleton a chance to curl one from distance, he beat Mitchell but was denied by the post. The ball bounced all the way out to Lynden Gooch who fired straight at the Rovers keeper.
If the atmosphere was picking up in the home end, it became something of a party with 20 minutes remaining with Defoe’s introduction but it was Rovers who were next to get into a dangerous area with Griffiths showing good strength to get to the by-line and cut the ball back to the penalty spot. Odubeko was edged out in a race with the Sunderland defender.
Knoyle was introduced with ten minutes remaining as Rovers went more compact at the back and it was bodies on the line stuff from McSheffrey’s men with Younger, Seaman and Rowe making excellent blocks while Mitchell was on hand to save the rest.
Evans did get one back for Sunderland on the 89th minute. Mitchell made the initial save after a drilled effort from the edge of the box came through a sea of bodies, but he couldn’t hold it and Evans was able to tap in from close range.
Sunderland huffed and puffed in the four minutes of added time but Rovers held strong to take all three points away from the Stadium of Light.