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Peterborough United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - Weston Homes Stadium

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Who might emerge as Sunderland’s not-so-obvious hero?

While the likes of McGeady, Jones and Wyke continue to grab the headlines, we ask our panel to name a not-so-obvious Sunderland player they feel could be pivotal over the coming weeks...

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Michael Dunne says... Lynden Gooch!

Can the real Lynden Gooch please stand up?

As we enter the final few games of the campaign, I, like many other Sunderland fans are still unsure on how to rate Lynden Gooch this season.

A man with so much natural ability, he flatters to deceive much too often.

That being said, it is entirely conceivable to suggest that he could play a major role in ensuring Sunderland are promoted this season.

Gooch is a victim of his own versatility. He has been slotted into many different positions throughout the season which has probably left him struggling to find the rhythm in his game that naturally comes from playing in one position.

Friday’s game against Oxford was a prime example of what he can do. Lee Johnson moved him into right back role for the second half of the game. He was fantastic.

Like a man possessed, Gooch took the bull by the horns and put in a performance so far removed from his first half display.

He was marauding down the wing and taking people on. His crossing was accurate and he expressed the fearlessness which frightens defenders when he is playing like this.

His run for the Aiden McGeady goal is him in a nutshell. He makes defenders back pedal and leaves them in limbo.

This is the Lynden Gooch Sunderland fans want and need to see more of.

Gooch is a big game player and has shown this as recently as the final against Tranmere when he nabbed the winner despite a sub standard performance. He is no doubt going to be a key cog in the wheel for this team in the final few games.

It is imperative that Lee Johnson plays him in a position that suits his game best. The mazy, mesmerising runs leaving defenders on their arses, the pin point crosses and the big game goals is the Lynden Gooch we love to see.

The question is, can we see it on a consistent basis?

I hope so.

Sunderland v Oxford - Sky Bet League One
Could Gooch make all the difference over the coming weeks?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Paul Fletcher says... Ross Stewart!

I’ll be honest, when we signed Ross Stewart, I looked at his goal record and wasn’t convinced that it was a wise move. With Sunderland’s track record of signing dud strikers, I felt well within my right to have my reservations. But from what I’ve seen so far, picking him up for (a reported) £300,000 looks like a very good piece of business. I’m optimistic that he’s going to play his part in getting us promoted.

Every time he’s come on, he’s made an impact. The clear example being his debut against Accrington, where he scored a great header and looked a constant threat. Although he hasn’t managed to get on the scoresheet in his subsequent appearances off the bench, he’s certainly looked dangerous and has always influenced the game, which is exactly what you want to see from your substitutes.

It’s obvious that his height is a major threat, but it’s only a threat if he gets himself in the right position, which he seems to have the knack of doing. When he comes on, he definitely gives the opposition’s back four something different to think about.

If he plays alongside Charlie Wyke up front, then that’s going to be a tough proposition for any opposition. Even if they don’t win everything that’s sent their way, the distraction they’ll cause and the space they’ll create for the likes of Jones, McGeady, Gooch and Maguire to exploit could prove crucial in tight games.

There may even come a point where it might be sensible to give Charlie Wyke a rest. He’s barely missed a minute of league football this year and while I’m sure he’ll be desperate to play every minute of the remaining nine fixtures, we don’t want him to burn out. If this is the case, I’d be more than happy to see Stewart and O’Brien up front giving the opposition defenders the runaround for 75 minutes (before Charlie comes on and scores a 15 minute hat-trick!)

Another thing that has impressed me about Stewart is his work rate. He never stops running and he’s not afraid to ‘put himself about’, which is something I’m sure all Sunderland fans can get behind. With nine massive games to come, we’ll need everyone in the squad to work their socks off if they’re going to get us up.

Sunderland v Oxford United - Sky Bet League One
Stewart bagged on his debut and almost scored with his first touch against Oxford. Could the big man produce more big moments?
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Gary Engel says... Luke O’Nien!

As run-ins go, this season could prove to be a nail-biter. Much like the final couple of minutes against Oxford on Good Friday. We had been piling on the pressure for much of the second-half but a determined Oxford weren’t going to leave without trying to snatch a point. With their final throw of the dice they swung a deep cross from the left, and it was only Luke O’Nien’s last-ditch header out for a corner that saved our necks.

The most impressive thing is how, before the start of the season, Luke O’Nien hadn’t even played as a central defender for us before. But with the defensive ability and maturity of a top centre-half, O’Nien’s versatility is an undoubted asset to Sunderland. While I think Bailey Wright will return to our backline once fit, O’Nien has to be a starter. I would favour a move into midfield. He has all the bravery, tenacity and defensive reading of the game required for a good defensive midfielder.

Indeed, O’Nien is just the kind of player Peter Reid would have loved; he runs all day and I think his energy as well as desire to get forward is something we lack in midfield. Given in almost the entirety of his Sunderland career we have hardly seen him in midfield, I think he could yet prove to be a midfield gem. A modern-day Paul Bracewell, albeit probably not to the same level, but that kind of strong, all-round midfielder. If O’Nien were playing in the Premier League it would be difficult to put a valuation on him.

But wherever he plays in the coming weeks, he is likely to be vital, just as his man of the match performance at Wembley showed.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
Wherever he plays, O’Nien is critically important
Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Mark Wood says... Dion Sanderson!

With the injuries to Bailey Wright, Jordan Willis and Tom Flanagan, it is difficult to imagine that Sunderland could have put together the run of form that they have without Dion Sanderson holding things together at the back. He has, of course, been massively aided by a more than able stand in alongside him in the shape of Luke O’Nien. Composed, athletic and with an eye for a pass, Sanderson is rarely beaten, either in the air or with the ball on the deck.

He hardly got a look in under Phil Parkinson, but people forget that he was never really a regular starter under Lee Johnson until Jordan Willis was injured in the defeat at Shrewsbury on 9 February. He started the next game – the 4-1 win against Doncaster – and every league game since. It is no coincidence that this was the start of the incredible run of form for that has taken Sunderland from seventh to third place, with only six goals conceded in 14 games.

He is only 21 years old and with little experience of central defence in first team football (he played mainly right back in his loan at Cardiff), he was asked to step up and be our defensive kingpin, our leader at the back. He has performed the role admirably, making the important interceptions, the last man tackles, and being there for the rare lapses from Luke O’Nien. With his ability to play the ball from the back and bring the ball out of defence, he is the ideal centre back for Lee Johnson’s style of play.

Nobody can deny he has been superb since he came into the team and, with Bailey Wright approaching full fitness, there has not been any discussion at all – among the fans at least – that Sanderson might drop back to the bench to accommodate his return. Indeed, he is now regarded as a first choice, a key player and one that will play an important part as anybody in our final games. There are no doubts at all that he will be up to it.

Sunderland v Oxford United - Sky Bet League One
Sanderson has been superb
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

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