Why Stewart Donald returned and this impressive statistic: The key talking points from Sunderland's win at Oxford United
Sunderland are off the mark in League One – but what did we learn from their visit to Oxford United?
We take a look at some of the key talking points from the trip to the Kassam Stadium on a fruitful afternoon for Phil Parkinson’s side:
Competition is rife - and that can only be a good thing
While Phil Parkinson’s team selection initially raised eyebrows, a glance at the bench emphasised the dilemma he is facing.
Will Grigg Josh Scowen, Lynden Gooch and Charlie Wyke would find their way into most League One teams - but had to settle for a space among the substitutes at the Kassam Stadium.
It speaks volumes of the competition currently developing within the Sunderland squad.
While it will no doubt be giving Parkinson some major selection headaches on a weekly basis, over the course of the season it can only prove a good thing.
We saw when Max Power was forced off, Scowen was able to come on. Likewise when Graham tired, Wyke was a more than viable option off the bench.
Sunderland haven’t had this level of depth since they dropped into League One and, in what is going to be an even more condensed season than usual, competition and options across the pitch will be key.
Fans or no fans, this means a lot
These celebrations were a far cry from the hugs and high fives we’ve seen at some behind closed doors fixtures.
While the sedate atmosphere often leads to toned-down celebrations, that wasn’t the case when Sunderland found the net in Oxfordshire.
Lynden Gooch’s celebration, in particular, was packed with passion and showed how much the goal meant both to player and club.
Of course, these moments are undoubtedly better with fans - but it’s good to see that same passion even in front of an empty house.
A case for the defence
The arrival of Arbenit Xhemajli has naturally prompted a debate over what the Black Cats’ best back three is.
But at this moment in time, it’s hard to argue that it is anything other than Jordan Willis, Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan.
In the three competitive games the trio have played, Sunderland have conceded just once - and they are yet to concede from open play, too. An impressive statistic, even at this early stage, given the teams the Black Cats have faced.
Against Oxford United, they looked solid and didn’t allow their hosts the space or time to really trouble Lee Burge.
Only twice did the U’s really threaten – Matty Taylor sending a first-half header wide before Mark Sykes’ drive yielded the same outcome after the break.
While that was partly down to a lacklustre performance from Karl Robinson’s side – whose makeshift shape and direct style saw the creative influences of Cameron Brannagan and Liam Kelly largely ineffective – so too did it owe much to a fine showing from Sunderland’s back three.
It’s a promising start from the trio, but they will undoubtedly face sterner tests.
And that starts with the visit of attack-minded Peterborough United next weekend.
Stewart Donald’s return was intriguing - but its significance is likely minimal
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Stewart Donald at a Sunderland game, with the club’s owner having taken a step back from the public eye after announcing his intention to sell back in December.
But he was present in the stands at the Kassam Stadium as one of the few club officials able to attend the behind closed fixtures. He was sat alongside his son and Tom Sloanes, decked out in a suit and red and white tie.
In some ways it was something of a surprise given the low profile he has kept in recent months.
Yet the fact Donald resides in Oxfordshire is well-known, so in that regard it was little shock to see him present at the Kassam Stadium – in a fixture he has regularly attended over recent years.
His re-appearance got tongues wagging on social media but, in reality, there was little significance to this appearance.
Donald remains the club’s majority shareholder and was likely just taking the chance to watch the side while he had the opportunity.
Goalkeeping concerns could yet re-surface
As we mentioned previously, Sunderland stopper Burge went largely untroubled on an afternoon in which Sunderland dictated the play for large spells.
Yet there will still a few shaky moments for the man between the sticks, particularly in the first half.
His wobble last week handed Bristol Rovers a goal, and he once again looked a little bit indecisive during the early stages at the Kassam Stadium.
One moment of note came in the first half where Burge half-heartedly came for a deep cross before being caught in no man’s land. Taylor connected with the cross and sent a header narrowly wide.
Thankfully, on this occasion, it didn’t yield a goal – but Burge will be well aware these brief lapses need to be eradicated.
Sunderland supporters will literally do anything to see their team
We all know that Sunderland fans are prepared to go the extra mile – but this weekend, a group of fans really topped it.
Some supporters, undeterred by the fact the game was to be played behind closed doors, travelled down to Oxfordshire well aware that the Kassam Stadium is missing one stand.
So they perched atop a van in the car park, placed flags in the nearby trees and cheered on their team.
And they weren’t quiet about it, either. There were regularly chants of ‘Ha’way The Lads’ while they stayed to applaud the fans off the field at the end.
Absolutely brilliant stuff.