The telling Lee Johnson comment that underlined the importance of Sunderland's unsung hero

This was a matchwinning contribution some time in the making.

Sunday, 28th March 2021, 6:00 am

Aiden O'Brien was struggling for regular minutes when Lee Johnson arrived at the club but he has been an integral part of the club's much improved form of late.

Johnson spoke to O'Brien shortly after arriving at the club and told him how he would fit into the side, stressing how important his 'running game' would be to his overall philosophy.

An injury picked up in the 2-0 win over Portsmouth checked the Irishman's impressive progress and though Sunderland's form generally held up during his absence, Saturday afternoon was a reminder of how key a player he has become.

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Aiden O'Brien puts Sunderland in the lead at Bristol Rovers

"He gets plenty of praise from me and I know just how important he is," Johnson said.

Tellingly, Johnson said he had restored O'Brien to the starting XI even though he has barely trained with his team-mates in the last fortnight.

The Irishman has been edging back to full fitness and preparations for this game were hampered by a COVID scare that prevented the squad from training through the early stages of the week.

O'Brien fitted in seamlessly nevertheless.

By Johnson's own admission his side produced an indifferent first-half display. Bristol Rovers pressed well and Sunderland struggled to retain possession.

O'Brien battled tenaciously and served the home side with a warning when he got free at a corner, heading just wide of the far post as Aiden McGeady produced an excellent delivery.

There was more than a touch of fortune about his goal when it eventually came, with Johnson joking that it was a lesser seen 'three-touch finish'.

Graciously, O'Brien conceded that he had shinned it.

The 27-year-old continued to be an outlet for his side throughout the second half and ought to have extended the lead further when he made an excellent late run into the box. His effort from McGeady's low cross flew just over the bar, though the reaction of the Sunderland team suggested that Anssi Jaakkola had made a superb save.

That was one of his last contributions, with Ross Stewart stepping in to take on the workload.

"We had to take him off in what was almost a pre-meditated sub," Johnson explained.

"I don't like to do that but we knew how important he would be today, his receiving skills on the half turn, his energy and of course his three-touch finishing prowess!

"We knew he could only play an hour."

Ross Stewart's arrival has provided a major boost for Johnson, giving him another option who can support Charlie Wyke.

Like O'Brien, Stewart has the ability to be the link between Wyke and midfield, and also run beyond. It’s a crucial skillset that allows Johnson to field his favoured formation without being overrun in midfield.

O’Brien’s goal was a firmly tongue-in-cheek reference to Johnson’s pre-match team talk, in which the Head Coach told his players to press like sharks.

Johnson had a wry smile. O’Brien has taken his message to heart, metaphorically and in the case of his celebration quite literally.

Both know full well how important the other has been in their current success.

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