Inside the brilliant scenes as Sunderland take another step towards a key Jack Ross target and ignite their automatic promotion hopes

This is the best kind of roar.

Monday, 17th February 2020, 10:07 am

The kind that you only hear when it’s been a backs-to-the wall afternoon.

When you’ve travelled across the country quite literally in the eye of a storm, delays and cancellations aplenty.

When the wind and rain is swirling into the stand but you’ve got the lead barely a minute into the game, on a day when three points would mean making a major statement in the promotion race.

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When your players run themselves into the ground in front of you and you’ve spent the last fifteen minutes with the box under siege, a battling defence disrupted by a key injury at the worst possible time.

You’ve headed and kicked every ball, screamed yourself hoarse for them to get up the pitch.

You’ve celebrated clearances booted deep into opposition territory like they’re a goal at Wembley, and then you’ve got through FIVE minutes of stoppage time.

The whistle blows and it was all worth it and only then can you get this kind of roar.

Sunderland celebrate their crucial win over Oxford

At this point, it had not even filtered through that Rotherham had shipped a late equaliser.

The gap to the top now just three points, automatic promotion hopes well and truly stirring.

This was not Sunderland’s most convincing display and Karl Robinson was probably justified in praising the way his side moved the ball.

After the initial exchanges, the Black Cats made little impression in the final third and even when they did break up the pitch, too often just a moment of indecision cost them.

This was a win all about defensive resilience and though Robinson’s assessment of the game was fair in some aspects, it’s also true that they rarely carved Phil Parkinson’s side open.

Jon McLaughlin made two excellent saves, but one was after a rare defensive lapse and the other from a speculative volley.

Sunderland defended their box supremely and this is becoming a heartening habit.

At the heart of it all was Jordan Willis, delivering another display that underlines why right now he is a very strong candidate for player of the season.

His rise and consistent excellence tells us much about where Sunderland are and why they have reason to hope that this season might be different.

Jack Ross had made Willis his top defensive target, believing him to be the embodiment of the squad he wanted to build in the long term.

A fine player, young but on the up and with a major potential upside. Crucially, however, also one with maturity, experience and humility well beyond his years.

Ross took pride in noting how on his first days at the club, Willis had underlined that in the way he engaged with staff and carried himself behind the scenes. He was nearly handed the captain’s armband on the opening day, such was his impact.

Though there has been much talk of culture and togetherness behind the scenes, particularly on the back of one particularly high-profile decision, it’s worth stressing how regularly Parkinson has spoken of inheriting the core of a very good group.

It tells us much about why he has been able to mould them into a group with the kind of discipline and resilience we saw at the Kassam Stadium.

Ross’ interest in Willis had another dimension, though.

In his analysis of Sunderland’s near miss the season before, Ross reflected on what he felt was a vulnerability at the heart of his defence, giving up too many chances and being unable to settle on regular partnerships.

Ross wanted more athleticism and a unit more capable of dealing with sides taking a direct approach.

Though Sunderland’s record in terms of goals conceded had been good, they had kept just 13.

Improving that would be key in his eyes, and across a 44-game campaign this time, that meant securing 18/19.

One of the club’s huge frustrations earlier this season was that even though their defensive data was much improved, the clean sheets were not arriving.

Now, they are doing so with a remarkable regularity, seven in eight games, no less.

It means their percentage of clean sheets for the season is now 32%, still well below the 40% mark Ross believed to be key, and where a number of sides currently at the top hover.

They are making that ground up rapidly, however, and with ten now under their belt, it is the platform on which their promotion surge is being built.

Parkinson inherited an improving unit, but has taken it to another level. His new system protects his wing-backs, still developing that defensive consistency and learning a new role, while he has also benefited from the resurgence of McLaughlin.

Here again he looked like the best goalkeeper in the division, and Robinson described his command of the box as ‘exceptional’.

Whether Sunderland create enough in the final third to go up remains a key question and one that was not answered here, but Willis and his team-mates did underline again why they are emerging as a force to be reckoned with in this promotion race.

It was a showing more than worthy of that uplifting full-time roar.