Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill hailed his players’ resolve after they extended their Premier League unbeaten run to 10 games at Sunderland despite being reduced to 10-men.
Villa failed to find top form during an eventful match at the Stadium of Light, but emerged with their fifth successive top flight victory away from home to stay fourth in the table.
Their task was made all the more difficult following Ashley Young’s sending off midway through the second-half for a two-footed lunge at Sunderland captain Dean Whitehead.
However, having cancelled out Danny Collins’ opener with James Milner’s controversial equaliser, Villa won it with a Gareth Barry penalty after a debatable foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor.
“The boys have done brilliantly,” said O’Neill. “I don’t know where they found it from. They found great resolve and great inner strength to fight back for the win.
“We have done that in a lot of games this season and I have the utmost regard for the players for that.
“It seemed to be, from where I was standing, an eventful game. Sunderland scored - and deserved to - and it took us some time to get into our stride.
“After the goal, it was a difficult period but we weathered that and then in the last 20 minutes of the first half, we came into the game and got a bit of rhythm about ourselves.
“In the second half, I thought we did brilliantly.
“I thought James Milner was fantastic. It’s something I shouldn’t be shouting about in these parts as an ex-Newcastle man but I was delighted with him.”
O’Neill refused to defend Young, whose 72nd minute dismissal will result in a three-match ban for next weekend’s FA Cup tie and League games against Portsmouth and Wigan.
“The incident I wanted to see back, which I have done, is whether Ashley’s was a sending off and I’ve got no complaints,” he said. “Obviously when I looked round and saw that Ashley Young had been sent off I thought that it was a bit crazy, but the referee is right.
“When you’re going in two-footed and you’re diving in like that then to me it’s a sending off offence.
“I’ve got no complaints, none at all.
“Ash is really disappointed because he didn’t really know what had happened, but players can get injured like that. He’ll be a big loss to us. It’s an automatic three games.”
Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia refused to blame controversial refereeing decisions for his side’s defeat, saying his defenders must accept responsibility for Villa’s goals.
There seemed to be an element of handball about Milner’s 60th minute leveller, while Sunderland’s players felt Paul McShane’s challenge on Agbonlahor for the penalty occurred outside the area.
“Before the equaliser for some reason we played a short corner and they counter-attacked,” said Sbragia. “We spoke all week about Villa doing that, they have a lot of pace and we fell into the trap.
“The second goal was a long ball down the middle. The two defenders were sleeping and we got punished for it, it was schoolboy stuff.
“The first Villa goal might have been handball but the referee has given it.
“The second one might have been outside the box but, again, he has made the decision against us. At the end of the day, we didn’t defend them well enough.
“I can’t be critical of the referee but I can be critical of my defenders not defending it well, they were poor.
“I haven’t seen the red card incident. The referee has sent off the lad and at that time we should have played more with our heads than our hearts.”