The reliable defender fast becoming an unsung hero of Lee Johnson's promotion push at Sunderland

Though neither had a particularly dramatic outcome on the game itself, there were two moments in this controlled win over Burton Albion that it felt worth dwelling on just a little longer.

Sunday, 21st February 2021, 4:45 pm

The first came with the contest still very finely poised at 1-0.

Sunderland were on top, a constant threat as they moved the ball quickly and worked the switches of play crucial to finding space in the Burton shape.

From a set piece, though, the home side were able to temporarily catch Sunderland out and for a moment, Lee Johnson's side looked exposed.

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Sunderland defender Conor McLaughlin

Jonny Smith, a threat throughout with pace and good dribbling ability, raced to latch on to the ball just inside the Sunderland half.

A crunching challenge later, and the chance was snuffed out in the blink of an eye.

Conor McLaughlin had sensed the threat and his intervention was immaculate.

Two goals later and with just a few minutes left on the clock, Johnson made his final substitution and replaced Max Power with Chris Maguire.The Sunderland head coach came to the edge of his dug out and told Power to hand the captain's armband to McLaughlin.

It was a young and relatively inexperienced Sunderland side on the pitch by this point but it was a moment that nevertheless encapsulated how quickly the Northern Irishman has become an integral part of Johnson's squad.

This was a controlled, impressive away performance and in truth, you could pick any individual performance and find much to praise.

McLaughlin, though, is due credit for the way he has battled through what was undoubtedly a disappointing first season on Wearside.

He arrived with a strong reputation but perhaps understandably, a lack of football at Millwall in the season previous meant that he struggled to find any real momentum in those early months.

In the nascent stages of Phil Parkinson's tenure he was asked to play at wing-back and though it's a role he has played before, in Parkinson's system there was an over reliance on that position for attacking threat and at that stage, it didn't seem the right fit.

His gametime at the start of this campaign was limited but whenever called upon, McLaughlin was steady.

If a move to a high-intensity style under Johnson looked like it might not suit him, then he has made himself a crucial player for two key reasons.

One, he has battled through the pain barrier either side of a hernia operation to give Johnson options when he has struggled for natural defenders.

His versatility and most importantly his poise on the ball is also proving to be key.

Johnson has talked of a 'total football' model while he is missing Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan and McLaughlin's willingness to step out with the ball, and to step in and cover when the more attack-minded full/wing-back breaks forward, is crucial.

When the injury situation clears a little, McLaughlin's strong performances at right-back should allow Johnson to keep Power and Luke O'Nien as valuable midfield options.

Every squad needs flair, and every squad needs consistent performers able to step into different roles when required.

McLaughlin's capacity to do exactly that is making him one of the unsung heroes of Johnson's bid to spark a promotion push.

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