This is exactly how Sunderland's vital win at Oxford United played out as stunning solo goal seals three vital points
Neither side had been able to take control of a frenetic first half, but the Black Cats asserted themselves in with a controlled performance thereafter.
Luke O’Nien opened the scoring with a firm finish at the back post just moments into the second half, and the victory was sealed by a stunning solo goal from Lynden Gooch ten minutes from the end.
Oxford United had struggled to impose themselves in the second half and Gooch’s glorious intervention, driving from deep in the Oxford half before cleverly finishing, was just reward for a firm defensive display.
With key games on the horizon, it was a performance to settle some nerves after a disappointing opening-day draw with Bristol Rovers.
Pre-match debate had centred around Phil Parkinson’s options in replacing the suspended George Dobson and, as he had hinted earlier in the week, it was club captain Grant Leadbitter who got the nod.
Josh Scowen had missed training during the week due to a family bereavement, and Leadbitter’s inclusion also meant that Max Power did not have to be moved from the more advanced role he has played during the current campaign.
Parkinson also opted to replace Will Grigg, handing Danny Graham his first start since returning to the club.
These were two teams with designs on challenging for automatic promotion, but neither was able to produce a great deal of quality in a frantic opening that was high on intensity but low on composure.
Sunderland did almost snatch an early lead, left exasperated when Oxford centre-back Elliott Moore misjudged a pass and appeared to slip. Aiden O’Brien was in on goal but the referee blew for a foul, ruling that Chris Maguire had fouled Moore.
Bailey Wright then hit the bar minutes later, aided by terrible marking that left him entirely free at the back post. Maguire had sensed the opportunity well and his delivery was precise, but Wright’s effort just didn’t drop in time to open the scoring.
The visiting side appeared to be on top, but had a reprieve of their own with some similarly generous defending. A cross from deep on the right flank should have been easily dealt with, but neither Lee Burge or Jordan Willis intervened and Matty Taylor’s header back across goal drifted just wide.
If that opening ten minutes had suggested the half would be full of chances, then it proved to be entirely misleading.
The flow of the game was constantly disrupted by referee Darren Drysdale, with both sides let irate at various points as a series of niggling fouls forced delay after delay.
Both sides were threatening only from set pieces, centre-back Rob Atkinson going close give minutes before the break when he nodded a deep free-kick just wide of the post.
The young defender was one of the summer’s most intriguing arrivals, signed to replace the excellent Rob Dickie despite having played no senior league football. His qualities became obvious as Oxford began to build possession as many would have expected them to do from the start. Atkinson surged forward from deep, taking the ball past Maguire and all the way into the Sunderland box. The defender opted to pass across goal, but the onrushing Sam Long’s effort was easily saved by Burge low to his left.
Sunderland had produced little incision in the final third, but did have a good chance just before the break. Atkinson showed his naivety with a soft foul on Graham, right on the edge of his own area. It was the territory from which Maguire thrives but his effort was chipped just over the bar.
The break served the Black Cats well, who seized the lead within a minute of the restart.
Denver Hume drove into the final third and played a low cross into the box. O’Brien gathered and teed up Power, whose effort was deflected into the path of Luke O’Nien at the far post. His composure was good, Simon Eastwood getting a hand to his effort but unable to stop it rolling into the far corner.
Hume was again influential as Sunderland almost doubled their lead, this time drilling an effort from inside the box. O’Brien stuck out a leg but diverted just wide of the past.
O’Brien was finding all the right positions but just couldn’t produce the finish, again lacking the right touch as O’Nien did superbly to burst into the box and cross.
Sunderland were on top and the home side looked short of both ideas and confidence.
Karl Robinson cut an increasingly frustrated figure on the touchline as countless passes were fired into touch. Even as the game entered the last fifteen minutes and both sides rang the changes, it was Parkinson’s side who looked the most threatening.
Scowen, on for Power, had an opening after a cross into the box was knocked into his path, but his effort was into the floor and easily stopped by Eastwood.
Oxford finally came to life with just over ten to play, Taylor playing a clever pass into the box that Mark Sykes fired wide of the far post from a narrow angle.
The revival was short lived, Sunderland finishing the game thanks to a stunning individual goal. Parkinson had admitted last week that Gooch, influential in a vital equaliser against Bristol Rovers, had been unlucky to drop out of the side for the start of the season.
The 24-year-old made his point, and how. At the first opportunity he drove into the box, and took his two closest markers out the game with an excellent dummy. With the goal then in sight, his simple left-foot finish left Eastwood with no chance.
The home side had been struggling to create any momentum and the second goal took the wind out of their sails entirely, the Black Cats holding on to their lead with comfort despite six minutes of stoppage time being played.
Oxford United XI: Eastwood; Clare, Moore, Atkinson, Long, Brannagan, Kelly (Cooper, 59), Osei Yaw (Aygei, 59), Henry, Sykes (Hall, 83), Taylor
Subs: Stevens, Forde, Cooper, McGuane, Elechi
Sunderland XI: Burge, Willis, Wright, Flanagan; O’Nien, Leadbitter, Power (Scowen, 61), Hume; Maguire, O’Brien (Gooch, 77), Graham (Wyke, 69)
Subs: McLaughlin, Gooch, Xhemajli, Matthews, Grigg
Bookings: Power, 22 Kelly, 40