Steven Fletcher’s eighth goal of the season proved enough for Sunderland to see off Southampton at St Mary’s and move four points clear of the relegation zone.

The Scotland international has proven to be a key source of goals since his £12 million summer move from Wolves and he was the man on hand again to give Martin O’Neill’s men only their fourth win in 18 Premier League games this term.

A third successive 1-0 defeat left the Saints perilously perched above the drop zone with only goal difference keeping them above Wigan and out of danger over Christmas.

Despite not tasting victory since beating the Black Cats local rivals Newcastle towards the end of last month Nigel Adkins’ side started brightly and deserved a goal for their attacking efforts.

Gaston Ramirez, filling the creative void left by captain Adam Lallana, went close with a dipping volley that was comfortably held by Simon Mignolet before Rickie Lambert thundered a free kick just wide.

But just three minutes before the break Fletcher struck in a rare forage forward for the visitors, displaying his sharp penalty area instinct to turn Stephane Sessegnon’s mis-directed shot past former Sunderland keeper Kelvin Davis.

The home side responded in the second half and full debutant Emmanuel Mayuka had his cries for a penalty shushed by referee Howard Webb after going down under Carlos Cuellar’s hefty challenge.

Jack Colback then had to be alert to clear Jose Fonte’s header off the line, while Jason Puncheon wriggled into a good position on the byline but couldn’t produce telling final ball.

With time running out Davis came up for a corner in the dying embers to no avail as Sunderland clung on to a valuable three points that will stand them in good stead ahead of Boxing Day meeting with Manchester City.

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