Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland are stirring and must again be considered contenders for automatic promotion

You will, no doubt, have taken a moment or maybe even a few, to watch back that second goal.

Sunday, 12th January 2020, 12:58 pm
Updated Sunday, 12th January 2020, 1:10 pm

The verve, confidence and quality is something to behold, particularly in a season that for long stretches has been so testing and so frustrating.

There are one or two moments of luck, yes, but that was just reward for the bravery to play through Wycombe and commit bodies in advanced areas.

The initial passes from Jordan Willis, the hold-up play from Charlie Wyke, the quality of Lynden Gooch.

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Chris Maguire celebrates his first goal at the Stadium of Light

Then the conviction of Willis to attack the space between the centre-back and the full-back, a superb cross and a wonderful first-time finish from Denver Hume.

Something is stirring at Sunderland, without a doubt.

Their recent form had been encouraging but such was the paucity of quality that had come in the months before, it had felt wise to put an asterisk against it.

Yes, Sunderland had been excellent against Doncaster Rovers, powered on by a remarkable travelling support, but Darren Moore’s side had been by their own admission surprisingly tepid.

The point at Fleetwood, a side so strong at home, was decent, and the performance better than that.

Lincoln had been dispatched in a superb first-half display but they had walked right into Phil Parkinson’s traps and this was not the first time that Sunderland, under this manager or the one previous, had made light work of a team at the bottom.

The teams in the top half had thus far been a different matter.

Wycombe, of course, had come into the game with their superb early season form on the wane just a touch.

A tricky fixture list over the Christmas period had yielded just one point from four games.

Coventry City, Portsmouth and Oxford United had all beaten them in a sign that perhaps the next part of the campaign would be somewhat different.

Gareth Ainsworth, typically effusive in his praise for Sunderland as a club and a team, could not help but break into a wry smile when it was put to him that a difficult day like this probably had to be set against the outstanding progress they have made since their first visit to the Stadium of Light since promotion last season.

He is fighting something of a battle, both externally and internally, to remind people just how far ahead of the curve they are.

Wycombe’s style is not for everyone, but there are few more dignified operators in this division than their manager. Few more effective, either.

They don’t concede many and they certainly don’t concede this many as a matter of habit.

In the opening exchanges, it had looked like it would be the tight, tense contest most had expected.

Sunderland had small spells of possession when they pressed and probed but Wycombe caused problems, namely by winning set plays and firing them deep into the Sunderland box.

The Black Cats rose to it and were simply too good for their opponents in possession.

The contrast between this first-half performance and the insipid showing at Adams Park in Parkinson’s first game could hardly have been starker.

Then, Sunderland had tried to play Wycombe at their own game and come off comfortably second best.

Here, they imposed their quality and made it tell.

They played some excellent football but crucially, when they did go long, Charlie Wyke constantly won his battles with a Wycombe defence that has been so robust for the most part this season.

Sunderland, of course, started the season in this formation and it is a little clearer now to see what Jack Ross was trying to achieve.

There has been justified criticism of Sunderland’s recruitment and structures, with Ross operating largely on his own last summer.

His plan nevertheless was to bring in energy and athleticism, players in the mould of Luke O’Nien who could grow with the club.

Willis and George Dobson are beginning to show that and after a very difficult start to the season, Hume is showing beyond any doubt by Ross was adamant that he was a player who could one day bank a major profit for his boyhood club.

Parkinson, to his immense credit, has settled on a shape that is now producing consistent, dynamic performances and will leave opposition managers worrying about how to combat the multitude of threats all over the pitch.

Key for the manager now is using this January window is to get sufficient options to ensure he has cover for the players making it successful at the moment.

Adding Kyle Lafferty is a start, and he will want another to offer competition for Charlie Wyke.

Sunderland’s progress must of course be set against a number of teams feeling equally bullish.

Ipswich Town ended their recent struggles with a thumping win over Accrington Stanley, and they too were talking about four goals and overlapping centre-backs.

Burton Albion continue to thrive just below the Black Cats and Rotherham United are the form side in the division.

The point, though, is that this division is wide open, automatic promotion and play-off positions right up for grabs.

Though the challenge is to sustain their current performances for a longer period, and the likes of Portsmouth and Ipswich will pose the sternest of tests in the not too distant future, Sunderland are emphatically in the mix.

They should not have fallen so far back, but now they have a real foothold.

Perhaps even more importantly, fans are looking forward to watching their team again.