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Another test passed by Sunderland

In one week’s time we will certainly have a much clearer idea of whether the promotion push remains on course for Sunderland.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Should we start to believe? Do we dare to dream of finishing above the minefield that is the playoff places? Another couple of months’ worth of results like this, and we’ll be swapping the wasteland of League One for the bright lights of the Championship.

Except, of course, that this is Sunderland we are talking about. Where would the excitement be if we did things easily? Why cruise to promotion when you can take a rollercoaster ride instead?

What we can certainly say is that, on current form, a place in that coveted top two is within our grasp, and who would’ve predicted that a matter of months ago? This was the kind of victory that owed as much to resilience, fighting spirit, and mental fortitude as it did to the team’s collective ability with the ball at their feet.

When I think back to Sunderland’s promotion-winning teams of years gone by, they always had the ability to dig a result out when things weren’t quite going their way, and this team is showing similar traits.

Keep your nerve, don’t lose patience, and never, ever give up.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In the face of yet another comically bad refereeing display (I know that I sound like a cracked record for criticising referees this season, for which I make no apologies) coupled with a Bristol Rovers team who showed as little ambition as I have seen from a visiting team to the SOL this season, the first half was something of a grind.

We were playing some good football, seeking to attack wherever possible, but it wasn’t quite clicking in front of goal. A penalty was denied, the final ball wasn’t quite there, and perhaps frustration was starting to creep in.

Midway through the second half, the turning point arrived. Abu Ogogo’s admittedly debatable red card was the moment that the momentum shifted very firmly in Sunderland’s favour. The chance had presented itself, and we simply had to capitalise.

When the breakthrough finally came, it was worth the wait.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lynden Gooch’s goal was extremely well-worked, on the back of some slick interplay, and seeing Charlie Wyke channelling the spirit of Ji Dong-Won, rounding the goalkeeper and slotting home to make it 2-0 was a great moment, given how much flack he has taken this season.

When Luke O’Nien added the late gloss with a deflected strike which seemed to take an age to reach the net, it felt as though Sunderland’s dominance had been rewarded.

Individual highlights came from George Dobson, who turned in his best performance for quite some time with an all-action, purposeful display in the middle of the park, and from the indomitable, relentless Chris Maguire, who seems to have turned our quest for promotion into a one-man mission.

He was at his absolute best on Saturday, chasing down everything and finishing the game with a brace of assists. This is undoubtedly the ‘real’ Chris Maguire, the player we all know he can be, and he couldn’t have chosen a better time to find his best form.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At the back, Alim Ozturk did his case for selection no harm at all with a steady, controlled display, alongside the ever-improving Jordan Willis. Defensive solidity is now one of our key strengths, and our mindset seems to be one of pride and spitefulness when keeping the opposition at bay. We’ve certainly become a lot tougher and a lot more streetwise, and I’m now expecting us to keep clean sheets, rather than hoping we will, and that in itself is a major factor in our revival.

Regarding Phil Parkinson, his redemption is not yet complete (only gaining promotion will truly achieve that) but he is certainly on the right track, and it was quite something to hear the crowd expressing such vocal support for the gaffer towards the end of the game.

Whatever the secret is, whatever Parkinson has said or done behind the scenes, it is working to fabulous effect.

We now face two extremely stiff tests in the shape of Fleetwood at home, and then a potentially seismic trip to the Midlands, where Coventry will be waiting. The phrase ‘season-defining games’ is becoming something of a cliche at this moment in time, but that is exactly what we face. Four points from the next two games would be good, and six would be a dream. In one week’s time, we will certainly have a much clearer idea of whether the promotion push remains on course.

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