IT was midway through the second half that the feeling of grim familiarity arrived.

Sunderland were leading 1-0, having failed to add to their advantage after opening the scoring in the first half. They were dominant, without being completely in control, superior, without being completely assured. Southend United had offered next to nothing, but were just starting to make the occasional counter-attacking foray into the Sunderland half.

Time and time again in the Jack Ross era, it was easy to predict what was about to unfold. A scrambled equaliser, an unsatisfactory 1-1 draw, and another two points dropped in the battle for promotion. As a script, it was both worn and wearisome.

So, while Saturday’s victory over a Southend side that would be propping up the table were it not for Bolton Wanderers’ points deduction should not be a source of unbridled satisfaction, it nevertheless represented a step in the right direction under Phil Parkinson.

Sunderland did not concede in the final 20 minutes, indeed there was never really a moment when Jon McLaughlin’s goal was seriously threatened. The back four held their shape, those in front of them remained disciplined and organised, and instead of trooping down the tunnel with the sound of a frustrated home crowd ringing in their ears, Parkinson’s players were able to celebrate a second clean sheet in a row at the Stadium of Light. In league matches, Ross never achieved two consecutive home shut-outs in the whole of his Wearside reign.

Admittedly, Parkinson’s two clean sheets have come against Tranmere and Southend, two of the poorest teams in the division. It could be argued there would be something wrong if Sunderland were not neutering teams that have only scored a combined total of 15 goals on their travels all season.

Nevertheless, with defensive insecurity having been a major issue under Ross, it feels as though Parkinson has made some important early progress. Things are not perfect, as evidenced by the away defeats at Wycombe and Shrewsbury and last week’s Carabao Cup exit at the hands of Oxford. But in the last two home games, Sunderland have been solid, resilient and well-drilled, attributes that tend to be essential elements of a successful promotion push.

“There are areas like the clean sheets in particular that we have looked at this week,” said Parkinson, who was the driving force behind the appointment of Lee Butler as Sunderland’s new goalkeeping coach at the end of last week. “We were bottom of the table for clean sheets, which is not good enough.

“We have had a look at why that has been happening, and we’ve tried to find a way to resolve it. We’ve started to do that in the last two home games, and we were very unlucky not to get that against Shrewsbury too, so we are making progress and will continue to improve.”

Having toyed with a switch to five at the back, Parkinson appears to have settled on his preferred defensive line-up with Joel Lynch and Jordan Willis playing alongside each other at centre-half, Denver Hume and Conor McLaughlin encouraged to push forward as attacking full-backs, and Max Power partnering George Dobson as the defensive shield that protects the back four.

It is hardly a radical change to the system Ross was using, but the early signs suggest an increased focus on defensive shape on the training ground is reaping rewards. Parkinson knows what it takes to get out of League One, and for all the talk of Sunderland not carrying enough of an attacking threat in the opening months of the season, it is surely telling that their new manager has made defensive organisation his key focus in the early weeks of his reign.

“Defensively, he’s spent a lot of time working on our shape on the training ground,” said Hume. “He’s making sure that everyone knows their job and everyone is in the right position, which is important. I think when you do that in training, it becomes easier to put it out on the pitch. That’s when it becomes almost second nature and it does come together.

“He definitely wants the full-backs to get forward, I think you’ve seen that. Obviously our wingers are good on the ball, and they like to come inside and look to shoot. As full-backs, we have to be aware of that and try to work with it and exploit it. When we play as we can, the full-backs do get a lot of space, but we’ve also got two good midfielders who box things off in the middle when we do get forward. That makes sure we’re still strong at the back.”

Hume has been one of the big winners of Parkinson’s first month in charge, with his early-season wobble consigned to the history books as he has successfully re-established himself in the starting side.

He was one of the key catalysts of Sunderland’s win at the weekend, with his driving runs down the left-hand side and link up play with Aiden McGeady troubling the Southend defence from the off. Still only 23, Hume is still feeling his way into senior football. Increasingly, though, he is adding defensive reliability to an attacking game that has always enabled him to carry a threat.

“I think the reason I like playing at left-back is because I can run from deep, and I think that’s what comes naturally to me,” he said. “I’ve obviously played left-back for a good few years now, but I think my all-round game is getting better.

“Obviously, I do like getting forward. I’ve played left midfield a bit when I was younger, so I do enjoy that and it comes naturally to me. I think if I keep doing that, I’ll keep doing well, but I also know I have to keep improving on my defensive game because if I am playing left-back, that has to be my first job.”

Hume set up chances for McGeady and Chris Maguire in the early stages of Saturday’s game, and was the architect of Luke O’Nien’s match-winning strike in the 20th minute. The full-back delivered an inviting cross from the left, and having pulled into a pocket of space eight yards out, O’Nien arrowed a fine diving header into the bottom right-hand corner.

Southend had a decent penalty shout turned down just before half-time when Trevor Kettle waved play on despite Simon Cox’s shot appearing to strike Power on the arm, but that was really the sum total of the visitors’ threat.

Sunderland had chances to add to their lead, but Nathan Bishop turned McGeady’s goal-bound effort around the post and parried another sharp effort from O’Nien.