Defeat at the Stadium of Light would have left the Black Cats in a perilous situation just above the relegation zone but, having gone behind to Jonathan Walters’ early effort, they showed great heart in the second half and deserved to see O’Shea prod home a 63rd-minute corner. Gardner can take little credit for the result, though, and his red card for a dangerous challenge on Charlie Adam was warranted.
Danny Rose almost stole victory for the hosts 10 minutes from time but his low shot hit the outside of the near post.
As it stands, Sunderland are now level with Norwich and Newcastle on 38 points — three ahead of a Wigan side who have a game in hand which is against Swansea tonight.
Neither side managed a shot on goal before Republic of Ireland international Walters put the visitors in front in the ninth minute.
Ryan Shotton’s first long throw of the match played its part, with his delivery earning a corner. Adam took it and when Walters’ header was blocked by Danny Graham on the line Walters reacted quickest to power the loose ball home via the underside of the bar.
Adam Johnson was Sunderland’s best attacking outlet but he was struggling for support.
Sunderland’s task became even harder when Adam’s charge down the right flank was ended by a dangerous studs-up challenge from Gardner. Referee Lee Mason was close in attendance and it was no surprise when he produced a red card.
Stoke did not overdo attempts to punish their opponents’ numerical disadvantage and the Black Cats retained a decent amount of possession, albeit with little to show for it.
Johnson went closest to producing an equaliser with a free-kick just prior to the break but it squirmed wide.
Stoke swapped Marc Wilson for Geoff Cameron at half-time and the American almost gifted Sunderland a way back in with a heavy touch and weak clearance but James McClean could not cash in. Sunderland had plenty of energy, not least Rose pushing up from full-back. Nevertheless, they might have been punished on the counter had Adam not met Walters’ pass with an air shot in the 52nd minute. O’Shea almost got on the scoresheet on the hour, prodding goalwards only to see Whitehead block on the line.
And the captain went one better two minutes later, popping up at the far post to side-foot Seb Larsson’s corner over the line after Whitehead failed to get a solid connection.
Remarkably Sunderland’s 10 men did not appear to tire and Rose was inches away from putting them ahead in the 80th minute with a skidding attempt that struck the outside of the post but Stoke held on for a point.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Colback, Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose, Larsson (Vaughan 86), Gardner, N’Diaye, McClean, Johnson (Bardsley 90), Graham.
STOKE: Begovic, Shotton, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson (Cameron 46), Nzonzi, Adam (Etherington 83), Whitehead, Walters, Crouch (Jones 90), Jerome.
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire).