Inside Sunderland's latest big step forward and the clear Lee Johnson message that followed

Amidst the noise there was relief, plenty of satisfaction, and a recognition that there is more to come from this Sunderland side.

Sunday, 28th March 2021, 12:00 pm

The closing minutes of this game were perhaps more nervy than they needed to be but the explosion of noise from the Bristol Rovers dugout and directors' seating belied the reality of a job ultimately well done.

With seconds to play Luke O'Nien had got to a loose ball first and a collision with Brandon Hanlan followed.

The referee blew for a Sunderland free kick.

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Sunderland came through a tough test at Bristol Rovers to underline their auatomatic promotion credentials

The vocal home presence demanded a penalty, while Joey Barton afterwards labelled it a 'stonewall' penalty. The standard of officiating, he said, was 'destroying the game'.

In reality, it was a decision so innocous that it was not even deemed worthy of a replay on the EFL's Saturday night highlights show.

It was a desperate appeal, and a reflection of a side who had run out of chances to grasp something from the game.

The full-time whistle shortly followed and Sunderland could reflect on another banana skin avoided.

Another three points, another clean sheet.

It has been a quite remarkable month, in which they have won silverware at Wembley and taken sixteen points from an available eighteen in the league.

An encouraging run of form has unmistakably become a sustained tilt at the top two, their fate now firmly in their own hands.

Lee Johnson s measured post-match reaction nevertheless told you much about the work still to be done.

It had been a trying week, a positive COVID-19 test on Monday scuppering plans for a week of refinement on the training ground.

So the three points, Johnson said, were testament to the character of the group.

Sunderland's Head Coach was equally clear that improvements are needed in the week ahead.

'Ice in the head, fire in the belly' is one of his favourite phrases and this was an afternoon where he felt the latter had taken over the former, at least in the opening 45 minutes.

With Rovers' struggling for form and their relegation fears deepening, Barton had delivered an extraordinary press conference in the build up to the game, taking aim at his two predecessors in the job.

There was, undoubtedly, the kind of reaction from his players that he was looking for.

For much of the first half, Sunderland were sucked into the kind of battle that the home side were craving.

Rovers pressed intelligently off the ball and on it, their willingness to go direct caused obvious problems for the Black Cats defence.

Though Jonah Ayunga went close with an effort from just outside the area, the issue for Barton's side was turning that combativeness into clear chances.

As the game developed, you could see why Barton's predecessor, Paul Tisdale, had criticised the recruitment of his club.

A year ago Jonson Clarke-Harris had dominated the game on this same turf; but here the hosts were ultimately toothless.

Barton's comments would ultimately come to echo Tisdale's.

Johnson was nevertheless unimpressed with his side.

Too often they looked to go over the press and as a result, they were unable to build any spell of pressure and territory.

Carl Winchester was the unfortunate player to feel the wrath of his Head Coach midway through the half, the usually becalmed Johnson raging on the touchline as he demanded more quality and compousre on the ball. You suspect the volley could gave been aimed at any one of a number of players.

What Sunderland had done throughout was cause issues with clever set plays, and in that regard Aiden O'Brien's slightly fortunate finish was richly deserved.

Johnson's attention to detail has brought improvements all over the pitch and the regularity from which the Black Cats now score from set plays is testament to that.

For O'Brien, it was a worthy reward for his consistent contributions since Johnson's arrival. The combative, intelligent forward is a player so important to the balance of this side that he was picked here with next to no training under his belt, and with Johnson fully aware that he had at most 65 minutes of football in him. He didn't waste any of them.

The frustrations of that first half were clearly still lingering when Johnson reflected on the game, as he conceded that he was 'as frustrated as I am delighted'.

Much of that delight came not just from the resilience of his team, but an excellent second-half display.

Sunderland continued to compete but now they had the poise and composure in possession that they needed.

Winchester and Josh Scowen typified that improvement, controlling the centre of the pitch as Sunderland carved out the better chances.

Only some slack finishing and very good goalkeeping from Anssi Jaakkola prevented Johnson's side from deservedly extending their lead further.

There was a wry smile from Johnson as he spoke of a 'lively' atmosphere that his side had to navigate.

Every press and every challenge was vocally backed from the home directors; every decision contested.

Barton and his side had clearly looked to create an edge to the game as they tried to dig themselves out of trouble, and for the most part they succeeded.

This was a bruising contest, summed up by the way that O'Nien and Dion sanderson were forced to go back to basics in a tough aerial battle.

It was another one that they ultimately came through.

Perhaps the best way to sum up this often tempestuous afternoon was that amidst all the noise, it felt like another 1-1 turned into three points.

Two tough tests lie on the immediate horizon and the measured reaction to this latest win spoke to just how well this group understands exactly that.

If there is indeed more to come, then it is set to be an exciting run in.

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