It was a Good Friday for Sunderland, as they produced yet another hard-fought and significant win over Oxford United.
Sunderland have extended their unbeaten run to 11 matches, as they came from behind against Oxford United to claim a feisty 3-1 victory over Karl Robinson’s side to keep up the pace with Hull City and Peterborough.
James Henry had given Oxford United the lead, but a goal on the stroke of half time from Lynden Gooch levelled things up, before goals from Aiden McGeady and Max Power sealed the three points for Sunderland.
The most notable change to the starting XI came as Jordan Jones was brought straight back into the side, after not playing a part in the first team since the Black Cats’ exceptional performance at Fratton Park against Portsmouth.
Aiden O’Brien was dropped to the bench, despite netting the only goal of the game last week at the Memorial Stadium. After returning from his international duty with Northern Ireland, Conor McLaughlin came back into the side, which resulted in Max Power being pushed into the centre of midfield and Carl Winchester dropping to the bench.
First Half Action
Both sides began the first half quite lively, but no side create a real opening until a clever corner kick routine from Aiden McGeady found Jordan Jones in a good position in the area, who could only miscue his effort seeing the ball drop away from danger for the away side.
The pace that Oxford’s attack posed was always going to be a threat for the Black Cats defence, and they opened the scoring from a counter-attack. McGeady lost the ball in the Sunderland final-third, and Brandon Barker carried the ball past the halfway line and into the Sunderland half. He fed it to James Henry, whose right-footed drive bulleted into the bottom left corner.
Sunderland one-down at home for the first time since mid-February and all eyes were now concentrated on seeing how they would respond.
It took time for the Black Cats to fully switch on, and Aiden McGeady almost made up for losing the ball in the lead up to the Oxford goal, but his left-footed shot was aimed narrowly over the bar.
The return of Jordan Jones was also causing the Oxford backline headaches with his trickery and skill, as he produced a wicked delivery for Callum McFadzean; only to be nodded wide.
It always felt like a goal was coming before the interval, and when McGeady’s free-kick from around 25 yards out drew an impressive save from the Oxford goalkeeper, it was looking like Sunderland who would be the most likely to find that goal.
In half time stoppage time, it finally happened. Jones produced an impressive piece of skill to flick the ball past Hanson, after Luke O’Nien found him with a long diagonal ball which the winger did well to keep in play on the right hand touchline, before slipping it into the path of Lynden Gooch for a simple tap-in into the bottom right corner.
Half Time - Sunderland 1-1 Oxford United
Second Half Action
After the opening five minutes of the second half where Oxford threatened to take advantage once more, Sunderland began to dominated the second half proceedings, as Lee Johnson’s side stepped up the tempo.
A crucial challenge from Rob Atkinson halted Charlie Wyke from breaking away on an attack, but it was a challenge from Mark Sykes soon after that changed the course of the game.
Having already received a yellow, Mark Sykes was shown a second as the game now lurched in Sunderland’s favour. A reckless lunge on Luke O’Nien inside of the penalty area gave the referee no option, and more importantly, the one man advantage.
That extra space now afforded to Sunderland’s attacking players presented new avenues to search for the goal that would put them in front, and as time ticked on, the pressure was beginning to build for the Oxford backline.
The away side’s rearguard was almost breached when Gooch went close to completing a brace, but saw his left-foot shot drilled narrowly wide of the right post.
This was followed soon after by the introduction of Ross Stewart, which added a new type of attacking threat and seemed to add extra impetus to the home side, which resulted in an early attempt that saw the ex-Ross County man direct his header into the gloves of Jack Stevens.
The pressure increased further when Sunderland went within inches of taking the lead, when Jordan Jones’ right-footed shot rattled off the crossbar, and like in the first half there was a sense that a goal was coming.
When the goal arrived, the importance was not to be understated. Gooch’s cut back found McGeady, whose composed character enabled him to curl the ball into the bottom right corner from the edge of the penalty area giving the goalkeeper no chance. It was clear in the players celebration’s how vital the goal was to take the lead in the game for the first time.
Oxford searched for the equaliser and they piled masses of yellow shirts into the Sunderland penalty area when Dan Agyei’s cross almost found Sam Winnall, but Luke O’Nien gained the all important touch to divert the ball wide of the right post.
As Oxford pushed and committed players forward, openings appeared in their back line as they tired. The result of which saw them carved open on the counter-attack in injury time when Charlie Wyke fed Max Power to finish calmly, and seal all three important points.
Full Time - Sunderland 3-1 Oxford United
This is something that Sunderland fans are going to have to get used to over the next nine matches. The nerves. The excitement. The passion.
Every match is now a singular “cup final” for the Black Cats, but with yet another win that was grinded out, promotion is even closer.
For one moment on Friday afternoon, Sunderland were in the automatic promotion spots for the first time in a very long, long time, but late goals for both Hull and Peterborough shows just how tight the top of the table is.
Going into Monday’s match against Peterborough in the automatic promotion would have had confidence at a peak, against a Posh side who arguably have a greater need of maximum points from the fixture.
Sunderland have games in hand on Darren Ferguson’s squad, so a win would pose a greater significance for the Posh.
Despite Monday’s match against Peterborough being the biggest so far this season, every match has a greater importance than the last, as Sunderland’s automatic promotion bid draws down to the wire.
Friday proved to be another significant milestone in their promotion push, as Sunderland came from behind to win a match for the first time since December.
Oxford have been a side that have caused Sunderland problems too often during Sunderland’s time in League One, and it proved to be the same story yet again.
It was probably the most feisty of matches between the two, but is the first time that Sunderland have completed the league double over Karl Robinson’s side since the Black Cats’ dropped to the third tier.
Although it was another step that Sunderland have made on their promotion charge, it was another nervy occasion for Sunderland fans. Oxford caused problems throughout the afternoon and applied more pressure than most in taking the game to Sunderland, but Sanderson and co. managed to deal with the attacking threat.
It took time for the home side to take control of the match, but the presence of Jordan Jones helps turn the match on its head - his assist to level things was timed to perfection just before the interval.
In the end, another three points were claimed, and Sunderland move closer to their ultimate target of automatic promotion.
Next stop on Sunderland’s automatic promotion push... Peterborough United.