LEE Cattermole’s red card was the only black mark on a night of progress for Sunderland.
But what a black mark it was – the skipper’s dismissal just after the half-hour looked sure to torpedo their Capital One Cup hopes for the season and also earned the captain automatic three-match ban.
That rules the influential midfielder out of the Premier League game against Wigan this weekend, the trip to Manchester City and, most crucially off all, the home derby against Newcastle United on October 21.
It was a heavy price to pay for a moment of recklessness, but Cattermole will have little complaint about the dismissal if he watches replays today.
Taking possession midway inside his own half, he went on a fine driving run upfield but, as he looked to left and right for options, he overran the ball and, suddenly, seeing Adam Chicksen ahead of him, lunged forward, studs showing, in a bid to get the ball.
Ref Stuart Atwell had little option but to show the red card and though the captain protested – possibly because the foul was not malicious – the official’s decision was the right one by the letter of the law.
It was a horrible moment for Sunderland’s big and vocal away support, who must have feared their moment had gone after being comfortable in the game up to that point.
But League One hosts MK Dons failed to up their game and go for the jugular in a way that Premier League opposition might have done and, having seen the game through to half-time, Sunderland came out in the second half and showed real character and quality to win the tie with goals from Craig Gardner and James McClean.
McClean was as good in this game as he had been in the previous Capital One Cup clash, when his two goals did for Morecambe. Gardner reminded us that Seb Larsson isn’t the only deadly dead-ball specialist in the squad.
But there were plenty of other plus points too, not least from every one of the five changes Martin O’Neill made to the side which drew at West Ham.
Louis Saha got through 90 minutes and demonstrated that he is a genuine third-choice striker for this side, David Vaughan pulled the strings with fine passing in midfield and Keiren Westwood underlined the fact he is a keeper of international presence.
Perhaps the surprise showing though came from the central defenders – odd couple pairing Matt Kilgallon and David Meyler – who were outstanding throughout.
Their impressive showings looked as though they would go to waste when Cattermole was dismissed.
Regardless of the fact the League One side had not really threatened Westwood’s goal up to that point, there had been times when they had passed the ball around sweetly and you expected them to capitalise over the course of the next hour.
It never happened though and perhaps the seeds were there in the opening few minutes to suggest that the hosts lacked the confidence to believe they were capable of a giant-killing act.
The game had got off to a subdued start and it wasn’t until the sixth minute, when Stephane Sessegnon tried his luck from range – a 25-yarder which stung the gloves of keeper Ian McLoughlin – that the crowd had a goalmouth incident to talk about.
Sunderland won a corner just before that, the home team just after, but the opening 10 minutes came and went with little incident.
The Dons, who had made four changes from the side which beat Bury 4-1 away at the weekend, gradually began to settle, playing some good passing football
And, in the 12th minute, a foul on Dean Bowditch brought a free-kick from the left, but Sunderland defended the ball well in the six-yard box and immediately went up the other end, with Vaughan firing in a goal-bound shot that was blocked.
The Dons showed the right spirit but Sunderland gradually began to find their rhythm.
The visitors showed class in the 18th minute with McClean drifting past three players down the right and having his shot blocked by Shaun Williams – the ball dropping to Saha, whose powerful shot forced a reflex save from McLoughlin.
The eager French striker followed that up in the 20th minute after good work from his team-mates when he lifted an inventive shot wide from the left of goal.
And Sunderland had half-decent calls for a penalty when Adam Chicksen clipped the heels of Danny Rose on his way through, but the referee waved play on.
The Dons replied from a corner taken by Stephen Gleeson on the right which Darren Potter drove across goal at the near post, and they were to go close again without seriously threatening.
But the game swung hugely to their advantage in the 31st minute when Cattermole was sent off.
Sunderland looked stunned, the Dons immediately went on the front foot and a cross from the left which bounced in the six-yard box should really have been attacked by the home side.
But they never really capitalised on their advantage in the minutes that followed. Bowditch whistled a shot across goal from the right in the 42nd minute, but Westwood was never seriously troubled.
In fact, Sunderland had the best chance before the break when Jack Colback found Saha with a delicious ball from the left wing, but the Frenchman could not fully control the ball as he brought it down with his chest in the penalty area and Williams nipped in to dispossess him.
Despite the Dons’ man advantage, the second-half started off in just as subdued a fashion as the first and it was the 51st minute before the hosts offered a real threat – Potter’s strong 30-yarder testing Westwood, who flung himself to his right to block.
Antony Kay received a yellow card in the 53rd minute for obstructing McClean after poor passing by the Dons had allowed Vaughan to intercept and make a defence-splitting pass.
And you could see by the way the that Gardner approached the free-kick, on the left of goal 22 yards out, that he fancied it.
The former Birmingham man could not have produced a much better effort, with his right-footed ball over the wall swerving into the far corner.
Keeper McLoughlin, becalmed in the centre of his goal, looked a chump, but he had been deceived by the flight of the ball which looked as though it was going to swing in but instead straightened to leave him no chance.
With an hour gone, the Dons made a double substitution, the experience of Alan Smith and Luke Chadwick being replaced by the freshness and beligerence of strikers Charlie MacDonald and Ryan Lowe.
They were brought on to take the game to Sunderland, but their first job was to watch helplessly as McClean lined up a free-kick on the right and drove a low shot just wide of the near post.
The goal gave Sunderland something to hang on to and they duly did, with MK Dons disappointing going forward, so much so that their first meaningful chance was not carved out until the 79th minute when MacDonald could not turn Bowditch’s right-wing centre in at the near post.
And the game was put beyond doubt in the 81st minute through a superb individual goal from McClean, who weaved one way then the other on the left of the Dons’ box before flashing a low shot across McLoughlin and into the far corner.
The superb, 2,500-strong away following behind the keeper went up as one to celebrate and they were cheering again a couple of minutes later when substitute Adam Johnson returned from his thigh injury to replace Stephane Sessegnon.
McDonald might have given his side faint hope in the 89th minute when he clipped a driven ball over the bar from just five yards. Chicksen had a volley diverted just over the bar a minute later.
But all the Dons could realistically hope for by that stage was a consolation goal on a night in which Sunderland found their feet and their form.