Sunderland U21s claimed a convincing 4-1 victory over Stoke City inside a chilly Eppleton on Monday evening.
A clinical Harry Gardiner notched a poacher’s hat-trick with three close-range strikes – albeit the last potentially going down as an own goal – as captain Ellis Taylor also got his name on the scoresheet. Jacob Holland-Wilkinson’s consolation goal pulled one back for the visitors late on.
Sunderland started brightly and took an early lead on six minutes, Jewison Bennette’s cross from the left finding Isaac Lihadji inside the box, the striker’s effort tipped onto Tommy Simkin’s crossbar before falling to Gardiner for a simple tap-in.
The visitors came within inches of grabbing an equaliser five minutes later, Kahrel Reddin’s shot from 12 yards out rolling agonisingly wide of Adam Richardson’s far post.
Bennette looked dangerous every time he got on the ball, this time after collecting a pass from Lihadji on the edge of the Stoke box he forced Simkin into a comfortable save from 20 yards out.
The Black Cats continued to put the visitors under pressure, Abdoullah Ba skilfully advancing past his man down the Stoke byline but Simkin was well positioned at his near post to palm Ba’s drilled shot away from goal.
The hosts ramped up the pressure and deservedly doubled their advantage on 37 minutes, Ba again combining well with Bennette down the left, the winger’s drilled cross was poked home by Gardiner from two yards out.
Ba almost grabbed a third goal seconds before half time after neatly manoeuvring space inside the Stoke danger area, but Simkin stayed alert getting fingertips to the ball and diverting it over his crossbar for a corner.
The Potters almost pulled a goal back on the hour mark, Nathan Lowe was quickest to the loose ball with an open goal gaping, but Ben Crompton’s brilliantly timed block kept the host’s two-goal lead intact.
After some slick build-up play, Sunderland broke and should have sealed victory minutes later, an unmarked Gardiner firing his shot straight at Simkin from 10 yards out.
The Black Cats managed to extend their lead midway through the second half, captain Taylor cutting in from the left and expertly curling his effort beyond Simkin.
It was almost a fourth for the hosts a few minutes later, Chris Rigg’s long-range attempt beating Simkin but not his right-hand post before being frantically cleared away from danger.
Lihadji was next to have a go, after jinking past his man the attacker forced Stoke’s goalkeeper into another smart save from range.
Sunderland grabbed a well-worked fourth goal, as Ba’s delightful diagonal pass found an advancing Zak Johnson on the right-hand side, the defender looking to serve Gardiner – the number nine claiming his hat-trick, although the final touch may have come off Potters defender David Okagbue.
The visitors pulled a goal back in the dying embers of the match, substitute Holland-Wilkinson firing past Richardson with the last kick of the game to deny the Black Cats a clean sheet.
SAFC U21: Richardson, Johnson, Anderson, Crompton, Taylor ©, Ekwah, Rigg, Lihadji, Ba, Bennette, Gardiner.
Subs not used: Young, Kelly, Watson, Middlemas, Wilson.
Stoke City: Simkin, Macari, Okagbue, Redfern, Badley-Morgan (Roney 69’), Smith, Kershaw ©, MsGuinness, Singh (Lewis 59’), Reddin, Lowe (Holland-Wilkinson 83’)
Subs not used: Houston.