COME the end of the season, it is safe to assume a hard-fought 1-0 home win over Crewe Alexandra will not figure too highly on Sunderland’s highlights reel. If the Black Cats are to win promotion from League One at the third time of asking, though, it is nights such as last night that will almost certainly have proved crucial.

Despite dominating for long spells against an obdurate Crewe line-up, Sunderland had to rely on a Luke Offord own goal on the stroke of half-time to gain their second victory in the space of four days.

However, their strength and resilience at the back meant one goal was always going to be sufficient, with a fifth clean sheet in a row underlining the extent to which Phil Parkinson and his coaching staff have improved the rearguard they inherited a third of the way through last season.

If you do not concede, you cannot lose, and at the moment, Sunderland rarely look like giving up a sniff of a chance, let alone succumbing to the kind of defensive lapses that proved so costly under Parkinson’s predecessor, Jack Ross.

“It’s a long, hard season, and you’re going to have games where you don’t score as many as you’d like,” said assistant Steve Parkin, who assumed post-match media duties last night. “When that happens, you have to manage them to be successful.

“We firmly believe in keeping clean sheets first and foremost, and we’ve got a group who really buy in to that. You can’t win every game comfortably, so sometimes it’s about seeing it through. Sometimes these results are really satisfying, when you keep a clean sheet and see a real intensity from the lads to keep the ball out of the net.”

Bailey Wright once again impressed at the heart of Sunderland’s backline, with Conor McLaughlin and Luke O’Nien performing adeptly either side of him despite rarely appearing as centre-halves.

Lynden Gooch, whose cross led to the Black Cats’ winner, and Denver Hume were solid in the wing-back berths, while Grant Leadbitter mopped up everything that went near him in his position at the base of midfield.

Leadbitter missed the latter stages of last season because of personal issues, but the 34-year-old has been back to his very best since returning to the fold at the start of the summer.

“We’re delighted with him,” said Parkin. “He’s brought all his experience and know-how of the games he’s played to the table. He tidies the mess up, but does it with quality, and if he can play from that area of the pitch, he does.”

Tom Flanagan made a late substitute appearance, having received some positive news after a scan on his ankle. The defender had been struggling, but the problem is not as bad as had initially been feared.

The same is true of Jordan Willis, who missed last night after hurting his foot at Swindon, but who is expected to train this morning.