More late drama, another game won in edge-of-your-seat fashion, and more evidence that under the stewardship of Alex Neil this Sunderland team is developing a rock-solid mentality, as well as a promising habit of eking out results even if we aren’t quite at our best.
Last weekend it was Nathan Broadhead who delivered, and this time it was Elliot Embleton’s turn to step up when the team needed some inspiration and score a goal that, while not quite as dramatic as Broadhead’s, was every bit as priceless and ensures that Sunderland’s playoff aspirations remain very much in our own hands ahead of a crucial Easter double-header.
Indeed, there was a neat symmetry between Embleton’s winning goal and Anthony Patterson’s stunning save from a Mark Sykes header that preceded it: two invaluable contributions from two local lads, both of whom will be eager to play their own individual roles in helping us to gain promotion.
From a performance perspective this game was comparatively sub-par, but at this stage of the season, when every point counts, will any of us grumble if it turns out to be another crucial step towards a Championship return?
Results elsewhere favoured us on Saturday and although we aren’t yet a team to fear, our playoff rivals will be taking notice of our current form, and the fact that we are incredibly difficult to beat and will chase a game until the very end. That is undoubtedly the single most important quality that Neil has instilled in the team.
The main talking point pre-match was the change of system to incorporate a three-man central defence, and the reintroduction of Jay Matete to the team. Granted, without Alex Pritchard, we lacked the one player who can unlock an opposing defence with a single pass, but the inclusion of Nathan Broadhead from the start did suggest that Neil was going for it.
The early exchanges were fairly scrappy, with neither side really dominating proceedings, but Broadhead should’ve opened the scoring following a great run and pass from Ross Stewart, that the Everton loanee was only able to scuff.
It was a curious quirk of fate that Sunderland’s opening goal should be scored by one of our most maligned players.
Showing a striker’s instinct when the ball fell to him after a mishit free kick from Jack Clarke, Corry Evans stabbed the ball home from twelve yards to give us the lead.
His captaincy may continue to underwhelm, but he was right on the spot to open the scoring and give us an early lift.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to capitalise and really take the game to the home side, and when Oxford equalised, there was a hint of inevitability about it.
After a needless foul - one of many we conceded during the game - we failed to deal with the cross and Elliott Moore was able to head home for 1-1. Bang went our proud recent record of keeping clean sheets, and all of a sudden things became jittery as we saw out the first half in somewhat low-key fashion.
The second half was scrappy, fragmented, and largely frustrating from a Sunderland point of view. We seemed to lack conviction in our play, couldn’t really get any midfield dominance, and things were becoming increasingly disjointed as the half wore on. Stewart was reduced to a peripheral figure, and were it not for Patterson’s remarkable save, we might have found ourselves in a nightmare scenario as the game wound down.
Ultimately, as has been the case so many times, it was the bench that made the difference.
Neil has rightly been lauded for his substitutions in recent games, and if Danny Batth for Broadhead was a puzzler, swapping Clarke for Embleton proved to be a shrewd move, as he slotted home a calmly-taken winner following good build-up play from Matete.
Despite the underwhelming nature of our performance, one or two players stood out.
Patterson burnished his credentials with another solid and commanding display in goal, and Matete’s return did give us some extra energy, although it was no coincidence that we finally gained more of a foothold when Luke O’Nien entered the fray.
On the downside, Roberts and Clarke, neither of who seem to have the confidence to go wide and whip balls into the box, continue to frustrate, and Dennis Cirkin’s performance, albeit in an unnatural position, was quite nervy and generally unconvincing.
We now prepare for games against Shrewsbury and Plymouth on a weekend that always seems to throw up a hint of nervousness for Sunderland fans.
Games around this time of year have tripped us up in recent seasons, but this time, it really does feel as though it could be different. We are certainly in a good place, and if we can take maximum points from the Bank Holiday fixtures, belief will be sky high, and the playoffs may not be something to fear after all.