SUNDERLAND cemented their place in League One’s automatic promotion places by surviving a scare against Barnsley last night, and manager Jack Ross feels the victory has made his squad mentally stronger for the promotion charge.

Barnsley could have climbed above the second-placed Black Cats if they had left the Stadium of Light with a win and for a period it looked like they might have stunned the hosts by completing an unlikely comeback.

Sunderland cruised into a three-goal lead when Aiden McGeady’s penalty in the 19th minute was followed by Josh Maja’s fine finish less than a minute later. Lynden Gooch added a third just after half an hour.

At that point it looked liked there would be no way back but Barnsley had other ideas.

The Tykes’ Kieffer Moore grabbed a goal in each half to set up a nervy final half hour, but Sunderland managed to seal the win when substitute Luke O’Nien slid in with seven minutes remaining.

Ross said: “It was a good match against a good team, a team I would expect to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season. They showed their strength and we showed how good we are in spells.

“It was similar when we played Peterborough here earlier in the season, under the lights too has a special feel here. This was a test, to come through it again strengthens the belief we have. They have enormous belief.

“I don’t differentiate between the wins. I get as much satisfaction from any of the wins. What I do recognise is the calibre of opposition, they proved that tonight. They have good individuals. I know the belief that grows when you win games like this.

“We keep going as a team and that opening 30-35 minutes we were as good as we have been in terms of putting it together.

“The resilience is getting greater with every passing game, that was another example of that tonight. We didn’t give up too many clear-cut opportunities, Jon McLaughlin didn’t have that many saves to make. We finished strongly in the last quarter.

“It was more my type of game. We knew it would be a basketball-like game because we would give up opportunities. I was enjoying it at 3-0 but not at 3-2. The last 30 seconds was alright!”

Sunderland have now gone 14 matches undefeated and stay second, four points behind leaders Portsmouth who they are due to face on the weekend before Christmas.

What is pleasing for Ross is that, despite a shortage of out and out strikers over the last few months, Sunderland have managed to get into the habit of scoring – and not relying too heavily on 12 goal Maja. McGeady now has five in his last six, for example.

“I thought at the time Josh’s finish was very good, we have watched it again and it was really good,” said Ross.

“He could have had a hat-trick with two headers, so he might be disappointed, but that goal was him in a nutshell, that is why at 19 he is so well regarded. He has that ability to shift the ball and finish in that manner.

“We spoke about responsibility on a striker’s shoulders, we didn’t have many strikers available but the recent contributions from goals all over the pitch has been very good.

“Aiden’s goal record since he came fit again has been terrific. Lynden’s goals and assists have been great. Then you can add Max Power and Luke O’Nien into that who can score. We love to have players scoring across the pitch and that’s nice to see."

Barnsley were on the back foot from the moment Sunderland were awarded the first half penalty, which Ross felt was fair and “didn’t see too many complaints” from the away team.

But Barnsley boss Daniel Stendel was aggrieved by referee Andrew Madley’s decision for when Ethan Pinnock went to ground as McGeady drove at him.

Stendel said: “In the first 35 minutes we were not here, after that we played very well. We played so much better but that was 3-0 at that time.

“I watched the penalty in a video clip, you can see it is not a penalty. He is ten metres behind it so surely he could see it was not a penalty. It was not the right decision.

“That was one goal though. The other goals were our fault. Sometimes not all decisions are right. At 2-0 we might have had more chance to win it.

“This is a big club here at this stadium, maybe players from League One were a little too impressed in first 35 minutes. We can play so much better.

“We showed that in the second half. When you want to win at Sunderland you have to play two good halves. Sunderland are not five points better than us.”