Phil Smith's verdict: Inside the key Phil Parkinson calls that defined Sunderland's impressive Oxford United win

There was a little delay before the celebrations broke out.

Sunday, 20th September 2020, 12:00 pm

Whether that was because those who had assembled on top of their van in the car park could not believe what they had seen, or in fact had not seen it all, is unclear.

Nevertheless, it was a goal well worthy of an audience.

Lynden Gooch had brought drive and energy from the bench but this was quality well above the level.

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Lynden Gooch celebrates his superb goal

First the pace on the ball, and then the delightful feint to take the defenders out of the equation. Then, the calmness to convert on a foot that is supposed to be his weaker.

Before 'the lads on the van' could be heard, the Kassam Stadium's loudest noise was Gooch's roar as he celebrated a goal that meant just a little more.

That the 24-year-old is one of Sunderland's most passionate players is well known, but here he had, again, proved a point.

A ‘very, very’ difficult decision and an impressive response

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Gooch's role had not been one of the selection debates most fiercely contested in the build-up to this game, but it had actually been one of the hardest for Phil Parkinson.

The Black Cats boss admitted after the 1-1 draw with Bristol Rovers that Gooch had been 'unfortunate' to find himself out of the team.

Gooch had, through no fault of his own, lost out due to a change in system that had pushed Max Power further forward and brought Aiden O'Brien into the fold.

His response was to help truly turn the screw on Rovers, playing a part in Chris Maguire's equaliser.

Parkinson had agonised over bringing him into the side, impressed with his attitude and quality during training.

In the end he opted against it, and that will have stung the 24-year-old. It was his left-footed strike that began to turn the tide for Parkinson at Doncaster Rovers all those months ago, and his pressing and energy that carried the momentum forward.

Gooch had spoken glowingly about the opportunity to play week in, week out, and in a central position to boot.

It's to his credit that this was his response.

A lesson learned and a step forward

In truth, Parkinson's decision had not been without merits.

O'Brien continues to pick up excellent positions throughout games, but is just lacking the killer instinct to turn that into goals.

Here he missed two glorious chances to convert balls fired into the box, and for Parkinson, that was a major positive.

He had rued the fact that his side had not turned their remarkable number of crosses last week (40!) into more clear-cut opportunities, urging them to be more precise in finding the 'second six-yard box' from where so many goals are scored.

This was a big step forward, with goalscorer Luke O'Nien coming in for particular praise. His surge at the start of the second half did much to break a previously tepid game open.

The contentious call that paid off in style

Parkinson, perhaps unsurprisingly, was as relaxed as he has looked since football returned.

It is too early to talk genuinely of rising pressure or must-win contests, and yet there is no doubt that there was a tension in the air coming into this game.

A frustrating opening day had left many questions unanswered, even accounting for some clearly encouraging play in the latter stages.

There was more disappointment at 2pm that Dan Neil and Jack Diamond had again been left out of the squad; more disappointment that Josh Scowen was again on the bench.

Even more disappointment at 3.45pm, when Sunderland had laboured through an insipid first half.

The call on Scowen was gutsy, even if not entirely unexpected.

Parkinson had been asked about Scowen in the immediate aftermath of George Dobson's red card. Surely, given his display against Aston Villa U21s, bringing him into the side would mean no cause for concern?

The Black Cats boss had swatted that aside emphatically, pointing out that Grant Leadbitter was also a very good option.

He had hinted towards his inclusion again on Thursday, pointing out that Scowen's best qualities come further up the pitch and with a freer role than that on offer.

Leadbitter, too, he pointed out, has been in superb shape since returning to the game.

The 34-year-old took part in individually-tailored sessions with Nick Allamby during pre-season and during a controlled second-half display, the benefits were obvious.

Leadbitter's passion and tenacity may not be as outwardly obvious as Gooch's, but his drive to get Sunderland back to where they belong is just as fierce.

To see him in this groove, snuffing out danger, firing up his team-mates, was an early highlight of the season thus far.

One question still unanswered...

A good day's work, and a fine, fine result.

At this stage of the season, perspective is everything and if the key last week was not to overreact, then it is the same again here.

Sunderland are still searching for the right formula up front, for starters.

It will be a disappointment to many that the encouraging signs from Will Grigg in pre-season have so quickly ended in a return to the bench.

Again, though, it was a decision that came as little surprise.

The noises from Parkinson since Danny Graham's arrival has suggested he is keen for him to lead the line as quickly as possible.

There was little sight of goal here, though there were also plenty of moments which showed his physicality and intelligence.

That is one selection debate that will rumble on.

It's hard to overstate, too, just how poor Oxford United were.

They have been perenially tricky opponents for the Black Cats since they dropped into League One, usually full of pace and penetration in possession.

Here they were direct and utterly lacklustre.

Nevertheless, this was undoubtedly a step forward for Parkinson and his Sunderland team.

Job very much done.

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