Clear signs of improvement but jury remains out on Phil Parkinson ahead of Sunderland acid test against leaders Wycombe Wanderers

Phil Parkinson's aim over the busy festive run was to claw Sunderland back up the table and back into the promotion race.

Sunday, 5th January 2020, 3:00 pm

Sunderland have achieved that.

Eight points out of 12 and five games now unbeaten - though that includes the dire Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers draws - has seen the mood change on Wearside.

Towards the end of the Bolton game, the atmosphere was toxic, fans - understandably - calling for Parkinson to go following a dismal run of form which had seen the club sink to its lowest ebb.

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Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson.

There has since been a dramatic improvement.

Charlie Wyke and Lynden Gooch - vital to the way Parkinson wants to play - are now back up to speed, Chris Maguire's form in the last three games excellent and sustained, Luke O'Nien and Denver Hume relishing their wing-back/winger roles.

The players are settled in this system, which sees Sunderland playing 3-4-3 when in possession, Hume and O'Nien helping create space for Maguire and Gooch to cause havoc off Wyke. Fitness levels improved.

The jury remains out on Parkinson, he will appreciate that.

He has enough experience to know things can turn quickly and that Sunderland have not yet fully turned the corner.

But credit where it is due and Parkinson and the players deserve plenty of that after the last few games.

Brilliant at Doncaster, unfortunate perhaps at Fleetwood before an utterly relentless display against Lincoln.

Michael Appleton's players could not cope. Sunderland were unforgiving.

It should have been more than 3-1 and perhaps this was a missed opportunity to bolster the goal difference further.

That said, Lincoln second half were never going to be as bad as the first and they changed their system and tactics to counter the Sunderland threat and go more direct themselves.

Sunderland, understandably after a hectic period which has pretty much seen the same group of players used, also took their foot off the gas second half.

All of that said, Sunderland still ran out comfortable and convincing winners.

The acid test of whether they have turned a corner comes this weekend when leaders Wycombe Wanderers visit, Gareth Ainsworth's side having suffered their own dip in form.

Beat Wycombe and Sunderland could rise back into the play-offs, while closing the gap to Wycombe to six points with a game in hand.

Promotion remains in Sunderland's hands.

Achieving and sustaining the consistency of performance needed to manage it is the challenge facing Parkinson & Co, with reinforcements on the way this month.

Sunderland have set the bar over the festive period and while there remain huge issues that need resolving off the pitch and all the uncertainty over the ownership of the club and what happens moving forward, at least the players have injected some positivity.

Now to build on it.