FOR most of the season, Sunderland’s tendency to draw matches has been their downfall. For one glorious night at Fratton Park, however, it was the key to their success.

Needing to defend a vulnerable one-goal lead from the first leg of their play-off semi-final at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s players held out to record their 20th draw of the League One campaign. Plenty of the previous 19 had been greeted with intense disappointment. Number 20 was cheered more vociferously than most of their wins.

“We were laughing about that after the final whistle,” said goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin, whose three second-leg saves proved so crucial to Sunderland’s success. “It was a bit tongue in cheek, but we’re the draw specialists!

“It’s the first time our fans will be buzzing to see us pull out that result, and that's what we've gone and done. We had the confidence we could see it through.”

A draw hasn’t always been such a good result, but it says much for Sunderland’s renewed defensive resolve that when they needed to contain previously free-scoring opposition in the pressure-cooker environment of a play-off second leg, they did so with precious little alarm.

Portsmouth might have dominated possession on Thursday night, but while McLaughlin made excellent saves to deny Gareth Evans and James Vaughan, the anticipated siege on the Sunderland six-yard box never really materialised.

Sunderland’s back four remained resolute throughout, and having spent most of the season searching for his best defensive unit, perhaps Jack Ross has finally stumbled across his optimum selection when it matters most.

Luke O’Nien’s switch to right-back has been one of the season’s big success stories, and while Bryan Oviedo would have left in January had he been able to strike a deadline-day agreement with West Brom after travelling to the West Midlands, his attitude since returning to Wearside has been first class.

The biggest surprise has been Alim Ozturk, though, with the Turk coming in from the wilderness to play a central role in the final stages of Sunderland’s promotion push. Ozturk went more than seven months without making a League One start, but since returning to the fold in mid-April, he has helped shore up a defence that was in a state of meltdown when Coventry City scored five goals at the Stadium of Light just over a month ago.

“To come in at this stage, having been frustrated watching on for so long, he’s (Ozturk) done fantastic,” said McLaughlin. “He’s looked so solid and strong in that position, real no nonsense. Him and Flanno (Tom Flanagan) have made a real partnership there late on.

“Luke has been doing great things with his energy and enthusiasm, and then you have the talent and experience of Bryan. As a back four, we’ve been putting in good performances. We’re starting to look solid and have that little bit of a bond, and of course winning games and keeping clean sheets helps that. The boys are trusting me, and we’re starting to gel as a unit nicely.”

Last year, Sunderland’s goalkeeping position was a shambles, with Jason Steele, Robbin Ruiter and Lee Camp all contributing to the club’s relegation from the Championship.

Jack Ross identified the role as a key priority from the moment he was appointed as Black Cats boss, and quickly honed in on McLaughlin as his number one target, having watched the experienced shot-stopper impress in the Scottish Premier League with Hearts.

McLaughlin turned his back on the Scottish top-flight in order to head south, and Hearts’ loss has certainly been Sunderland’s gain with his consistency and reliability proving key bedrocks of the promotion push.

“It’s great that I’ve been able to contribute, and that we were able to produce a defensive performance like the one the other night,” said the 31-year-old, who will hope that Alex McLeish’s successor as Scotland boss continues to select him for international duty. “Myself, the back four and everyone in front of us, we knew that a clean sheet was going to be vital to our success.

“If we could get a goal, then we knew that we could see the game through, but it was always going to be cagey. The approach is to come and play your football, try and take the game to them when you get opportunities, but human nature takes over, you know what's at stake and you've got something to defend.

“You're away from home against a good team, that's how it is going to pan out. Luckily for myself, I've managed to be in the right place at the right time with the opportunities they had. Collectively, we did a job.”