Gardner stunner sets up away win.
Sunderland ran out comfortable winners at MK Dons in the Capital One Cup despite playing more than half the match with ten men.
Lee Cattermole's red card just after the half-hour came during a period of Sunderland domination, but the visitors took the dismissal in their stride to counter-punch with two superb goals.
Craig Gardner's free-kick nine minutes into the second half was world-class, and James McClean wrapped up the victory with a booming finish from close range eight minutes from time.
The goals capped a professional performance as a patched-up Sunderland side kept the Dons at arm's length to book their place in the Fourth Round.
Boss Martin O'Neill was forced to make five changes due to injuries, with midfielder David Meyler pressed into service as a makeshift centre-back.
Meanwhile Keiren Westwood, Matt Kilgallon, David Vaughan and Louis Saha were also drafted in.
The early stages offered little in the way of chances for the 2,500-strong travelling army, who braved horrendous conditions to make their way to Stadium:MK.
Alan Smith's wayward shot for the hosts was the only real goalscoring opportunity of the opening 15 minutes, but Sunderland generated a good opportunity soon afterwards thanks to some trademark trickery from McClean.
Tightly marked by three Dons players, the winger slithered past them all before teeing up Saha, whose powerful shot was well beaten away by home keeper Ian McLoughlin.
Emboldened by the goalscoring opportunity, Saha then tried his luck again, twisting and turning at close quarters to curl an effort just past the far post.
The Dons replied with a Stephen Gleeson blast just wide from a well-worked corner, but Sunderland were tightening their grip with Danny Rose in particular providing a constant threat bombing on from left-back.
But the complexion of the game changed just after the half-hour. Cattermole slid in on Adam Chicksen and the referee ruled the Sunderland captain had been reckless, immediately issuing a straight red card.
Forced to reorganise, Sunderland had some defending to do late in the first half but comfortably held the Dons away from Westwood's goal, with only a Darren Potter shot from distance causing momentary concern.
Potter was at it again in the early stages of the second period, firing low towards the bottom corner only to see Westwood turn the ball behind.
Sunderland needed a spark – and they got it from that man Gardner nine minutes into the second period.
Antony Kay's foul on McClean gave the former Birmingham ace a shooting chance 25 yards from goal, and he didn't need asking twice.
The shot was straight and true, arrowing high into the net beyond a stunned McLoughlin who could only stand motionless as the ball ripped past him.
Cue wild celebrations from the stand-in right back, who seems to have a penchant for scoring spectacular goals.
But there was still work to be done at the other end, with Daniel Powell underlining the fact when he curled a shot inches wide just after Gardner's goal.
Far from sitting back, Sunderland continued to press with McClean almost repeating Gardner's free-kick success only to see his low effort skim the outside of McLoughlin's left-hand post.
Dons boss Karl Robinson threw on two strikers – Ryan Lowe and Charlie Macdonald – in an attempt to force the issue and both came close as time ticked away.
First Lowe fired off-target after stealing a yard of space in the box before his strike partner met Dean Bowditch's cross cleanly at the front post but couldn't direct the ball back on target.
The misses were costly as Sunderland struck with surgical precision to book their spot in the next round.
Vaughan threaded the needle as his incisive ball found McClean at the back post, and the winger took a touch before blasting a low angled shot across McLoughlin and into the far corner.
There was more good news from Sunderland fans as Adam Johnson made his return from injury, coming on as a substitute with seven minutes to play.
The Dons almost halved the deficit late on when Dean Lewington's seemingly goalbound shot was deflected over the crossbar by colleague Macdonald.
Meanwhile goal hero Gardner was in excellent form at the other end with a flying block to deny Chicksen.
But it was job done for the ten men as they secured an excellent cup victory and a clean sheet to boot.
- Yellow Kay
- Chadwick (Lowe)
- Powell (O'Shea)
- Smith (MacDonald)
- Colback Yellow
- Cattermole Red
- Sessegnon (Johnson)