Gary Rowell: This is the key factor behind Sunderland's stunning form under Phil Parkinson in 2020

Sunderland’s win at Oxford on Saturday leaves them just three points off the top of the table and when you think back to where Sunderland were after that Boxing Day fiasco against Bolton, it has been an unbelievable turnaround.

Monday, 17th February 2020, 4:45 pm

Sunderland were as low as they have ever been in their history over that miserable festive season, not only in league placing but also the morale and optimism of both fans and the team had sunk to an all-time low.

Now, less than two months later, the morale and optimism is going through the roof thanks to just one defeat in the last 13 games.

There is always more than just one reason when these sort of massive improvements happen but the main one for me is the amount of clean sheets the team are now keeping.

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Chris Maguire tussles for the ball away at Oxford United.

Earlier on in the season, Sunderland couldn’t buy a clean sheet, it wasn’t that Sunderland were leaking goals like a sieve but they would always concede at least one and when that happens, you can’t get those ugly 1-0 wins that get teams promoted.

Sunderland have won three of their last four away games 1-0 and not one of those slender victories has been easy on the eye but they have yielded nine points when earlier in the season, and definitely last season, those games tended to end 1-1.

The Oxford win was all about the unglamorous side of the game; defensive resilience, sheer will and determination and huge work-rate with an ‘over my dead body’ attitude and in a strange way those sort of wins are so satisfying.

Following that disappointing defeat to Portsmouth, Sunderland have responded superbly, winning three out of three, without conceding a single goal.

Last season we failed to win promotion because of all those 1-1 draws, maybe this season we can win promotion by turning them into 1-0 wins.