Phil Smith's verdict: A glimmer of hope at the Stadium of Light as Phil Parkinson's Sunderland continue improvement

The last time Sunderland had played on home turf, the final whistle had been accompanied by a cacophony of boos and chants for change.

Sunday, 5th January 2020, 12:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 5th January 2020, 12:25 pm

The anger was fully justified.

The Black Cats at their lowest ebb, months of mismanagement catching up with a club in its lowest-ever position and there fully on merit.

Those concerns have not gone away.

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Phil Parkinson has seen an improvement in Sunderland's performances

Halfway through the season supposed to be one of 100-points chased, it remains one in which promotion remains very much a possibility, rather than a probability.

The long-term direction of the club remains a source of deep concern and in truth, the chairman’s intervention on Friday night did little to clear things up.

A tonic, though, that full time on this occasion brought about the booming sound of that old favourite, ‘paint your wagon’.

Are Sunderland finally on their way?

It remains too early to tell, but there is no doubting that this has been a week in which on the pitch at least, Phil Parkinson has managed to steady the ship.

Seven points from nine, and at long last, signs of a structure and fluidity that may well deliver results with the kind of consistency required to haul back the ground lost during these testing recent months.

Lincoln City, without a doubt, proved to be surprisingly obliging opponents.

They had come into the game riding the crest of a wave, their underwhelming position in the table offset by two excellent wins over Ipswich Town and Peterborough United.

At the Stadium of Light they gifted their opponents a three-goal lead.

Soft defending at a corner, a succession of poor passes in front of their own goal, and finally, a failure to deal with a simple long ball through the middle of the pitch.

Sunderland, though, played their part in bringing about that panicked display.

Off the ball, their improvement in recent games has been significant.

They are pressing not just energetically but effectively.

Michael Appleton’s side came with a determination to play through the lines no matter what but more often than not, any player in blue receiving possession quickly found themselves under pressure and with no obvious avenue for escape.

Parkinson has been encouraged by the physical statistics his players have been producing in recent games and it is clear that the appointment of Nick Allamby as physical performance coach is beginning to make an impact.

In possession, the Black Cats are finding themselves with more options on the ball and crucially, more bodies in the final third.

They still regularly go long to Charlie Wyke, but where in recent weeks he has found himself isolated too often, Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch are now ready to quickly pounce on any knockdowns on loose balls.

Gooch, in particular, has been a crucial component in recent weeks.

Though Denver Hume’s defensive frailties were exposed a touch for Lincoln’s second-half goal, he has been a joy to watch driving forward and his partnership with Gooch is giving opposition manager’s headaches.

That has been a rarity this season and it has given the Black Cats a foothold to try and progress from.

When Parkinson took charge, he spoke regularly of finding a ‘balance’ in his side.

By that, he meant producing front-foot performances while ensuring his side were not vulnerable to the counter, ‘locking in’ their attacks.

In the last three games they have improved in that regard, even if there have been patches on each occasion where the game has become stretched and Sunderland uncertain.

Without doubt, their second-half display was flat and they invited Appleton’s side into a contest that should have been over.

The purpose in possession lacking, the intensity off-the-ball dropping.

In fairness, it has been a punishing schedule and with performances improving, Parkinson’s reluctance to tinker was understandable.

The challenge now lies quite clearly in sustaining this run of form.

The reality for Sunderland is that though this win has brought them right back into play-off contention, they are starting from a fair distance back and a relentless accumulation of points is required.

They cannot rely on the sides above them to continue dropping points with the regularity that they have done in recent weeks.

Sunderland probably do not deserve to find themselves so close to the top six.

Their regression from the last campaign, on and off the pitch, continues to define the season and this uplift in performance cannot deflect from yet more uncertainty off it.

But you could be forgiven for feeling a touch of hope as paint your wagon rang round the stands.

This was a worthy win for a team playing with structure and purpose.

It’s a good place to start.