Phil Smith's verdict: The battling display and brilliant scenes that showed the spirit Sunderland have recaptured

That this felt like much harder work made those closing stages all the more satisfying.

Sunday, 19th January 2020, 12:09 pm
Updated Sunday, 19th January 2020, 12:58 pm

Lynden Gooch has scored some memorable late goals since Sunderland dropped into the third tier.

That stooping header against Charlton Athletic, on the opening day of the season when a club felt reborn, will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Nor will his late strike against Walsall, when Sunderland’s fans dominated the ground and their team showed a refusal to be beaten.

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Sunderland fans celebrate at the final whistle

They were 2-0 down and had been reduced to ten men, but found a way to get back into the game and the celebrations were delirious when he snatched a point.

The Black Cats, after a chastening spell in the bleak midwinter, have that resilience back and so little wonder Gooch puts it up there as probably his favourite Sunderland goal.

Lincoln City and Wycombe Wanderers had been swept aside in a first-half surge but this was very different.

The Black Cats lacked a little intensity and in possession, they were slipping into some bad habits.

The long balls that characterised that winless run were a little too frequent, the service and support to Charlie Wyke lacking.

It would be remiss, too, not to give MK Dons credit for that.

Given the way recent opponents have been caught out playing from the back against Sunderland, it was brave to stick so rigidly to that method.

MK Dons remain deep in relegation trouble but under Russell Martin they have achieved some very good results in a challenging fixture schedule and even in defeat to Burton Albion in midweek, they had shown enough to suggest they were on the right track.

There was a composure to their play and Jordan Houghton, the former Chelsea youngster, put in one of the more impressive individual displays we have seen against the Black Cats in recent times.

At the base of midfield he used his body well, receiving passes in dangerous areas and handling the ball well.

Teams have struggled to play through Sunderland’s initial press in his unbeaten run but Martin’s side were able to do it with relative frequency.

What they lacked was end product in the final third and at the break the game had an unusual dynamic.

The home side had enjoyed the better of the ball but Sunderland had by far the better chance, Alim Ozturk somehow turning the ball wide from a matter of yards out.

Sunderland had also shown an excellent industry off the ball. Ozturk and Jordan Willis had been commanding in defensive situations and throughout the team the work ethic was there.

It meant that Phil Parkinson could make his half-time alterations from a platform where his side could get into the game.

“We felt that the shape of their team was giving us a few too many problems in the first half, and we adjusted one or two areas tactically at half-time,” he said.

“I wanted the whole team to come up the pitch five or ten yards because we were just a bit off it in terms of our intensity levels, but we raised our games kicking towards our 4,000 travelling army and got a deserved win in the end.

“You need certain characteristics to win away from home and we are starting to get there.

“Our mentality is stronger, when you go away from home you are never going to get it all your own way but our concentration levels were there, everyone did their jobs including at set-pieces near the end when the ball came in our box, and we stuck to our task today so we get back on the coach and head back North with a deserved three points.”

By Martin’s own admission, his side struggled to cope with that aggression.

He also felt the outstanding travelling support had been a factor, the Black Cats visibly boosted by the prospect of attacking an end in which over 4,000 supporters had assembled.

If the slightly curious dynamics of Stadium MK, and the fact that the Sunderland fans were split into two sections, meant that this was not quite the wall that had so inhibited Doncaster Rovers a few weeks back, then there was still a familiarity .

MK Dons struggled to find that structure and control to their play and even if Sunderland did not test Lee Nicholls as much as they would have liked, they increasingly began to create the better openings.

Kyle Lafferty made a difference when brought on for his cameo, using his body well and bringing an energy that added an extra impetus for his side.

Then the moment that made all the difference came, a quick free kick well taken and the stunning strike from Gooch.

The difficulties of the contest, the brilliant support and the fact that for so much of the game the result felt uncertain, made for celebrations all the wilder.

Gooch was booked for entering the stands but in truth, amidst the blur of the flare and the din of the roars, crowd and team had become somewhat blurred.

A spirit has been recaptured, the players quite rightly soaking up the adulation on the final whistle.

That they had seen the game out with such poise, landing a second consecutive clean sheet, was another tick in the box for a team that seems increasingly serious about pushing for the promotion places.

This was far from their most effective or eye-catching display, which made the result feel all the more significant.