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Credit where it’s due - Phil Parkinson & the Sunderland players have improved drastically!

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Phil Parkinson and the Sunderland players deserve a lot of credit. They have negotiated the packed New Year schedule with three solid results, but, as ever, the key will be maintaining our form.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

The beauty of League One, eh?

How quickly the outlook, as well as our league position, can change from doom-laden and worrying to positive and slightly more optimistic in the space of three matches.

Following the Boxing Day grind against Bolton, much of the the talk was of the season being over and done with, Stewart Donald dragging us into the depths of despair, and Phil Parkinson’s utter ineptitude as a manager. Indeed, post-Bolton, I compared him unfavourably to Simon Grayson and was adamant that it was time for him to resign, because I genuinely believed he’d reached the point of no return.

Now, after a gritty victory against Doncaster, a scrappy draw against Fleetwood and an impressive home victory against Lincoln, Sunderland suddenly find themselves on the fringes of the playoffs once again - and, amazingly, a mere six points shy of second place with a game in hand. Parkinson has bought himself some precious breathing space, the players seem to be rejuvenated, and perhaps those proclamations of the season being a write-off were slightly premature. The humble pie hasn’t yet been served up, but if we can keep this run going there’s a decent chance that it might be sooner rather than later.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Saturday’s match was a game of contrasts. In the first half, we harried, pressed with intent, and generally showed the kind of quality that has been missing for far too long.

Lynden Gooch - who grabbed two goals and looks a player reborn - and the often-divisive Chris Maguire in particular were extremely effective in their attacking play, and at the back, the shaky moments that have plagued us this season were much fewer and farther between.

The selection of the much-maligned Tom Flanagan was a slight eyebrow-raiser before the game, but chipping in with a goal and keeping it steady in defence will have done wonders for his own confidence.

The second half was slightly more edgy as we seemed to drop off and lose our focus. Perhaps it was understandable. After all, we’d done the hard part in getting ourselves 3-0 up, and perhaps a slight dip was inevitable, but the importance of keeping your foot to the floor was illustrated when Lincoln grabbed a goal back, narrowing the deficit and just firing off a warning shot that the result was not yet a done deal.

Fortunately, we showed some good professionalism to see the game out, and there was no need to worry about us crumbling as Lincoln tried to find a way back into the match.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

We have started the new decade in positive fashion, of that there can be no doubt, but it is extremely important that this mini-run does not mask the issues that we still face.

The squad is still in need of freshening up, and, following his latest radio interview - during which he fended off and evaded questions like a fencer on a tightrope - Stewart Donald’s ownership of the club remains a thorny issue.

There is no magic bullet, no miracle fix as yet, but if we continue to improve on the field and to win football matches, that is one end of the bargain being upheld.

Parkinson and the players deserve a lot of credit. They have negotiated the packed New Year schedule with three solid results, but, as ever, the key will be maintaining our form.

All four of January’s fixtures are winnable. If we can play to the required standards - and by the time February arrives, hopefully with the squad boosted by some new arrivals - there may yet be a chance of a positive ending to this turbulent season.