SUCCESSFUL defending is a collective pursuit, but with his Sunderland side currently boasting the best defensive record in the whole of English football, Phil Parkinson is happy to highlight the pivotal role played by Bailey Wright in the opening six weeks of the campaign.

The Black Cats entertain Portsmouth this afternoon looking to extend a remarkable run that has seen them go 537 minutes without conceding a League One goal.

Sunderland’s defence has not been breached since Luke Leahy stroked home a penalty for Bristol Rovers three minutes into the opening game of the season, and along with goalkeeper Lee Burge and the versatile Luke O’Nien, Wright has played in every minute of the Wearsiders’ five league games.

The 28-year-old has established himself as the linchpin of Parkinson’s five-man defence, stationed at the heart of Sunderland’s three centre-halves, but the Black Cats boss freely admits there were times this summer when he feared Wright would be heading elsewhere.

The Australian’s loan spell at the Stadium of Light in the latter stages of last season was a successful one, but it alerted other clubs to his potential availability as his contract at Bristol City came to an end.

Sunderland had to fight hard to sign him, but their ability to successfully pull off a deal increasingly looks a critical moment as they battle to clamber out of League One at the third time of asking.

“Bailey was a great signing for us in the summer,” said Parkinson. “He was a player I’d been speaking to all through lockdown, although we weren’t sure we would be able to get the deal done.

“Credit to the owner of the football club for enabling us to do that, and also to Bailey as well because he was realistic. He can see the potential at Sunderland, and enjoyed his loan time here.

“He’s a very good player. He’s a leader, he’s been a captain at Championship level, and he’s a great influence, on and off the pitch.”

Wright’s leadership qualities have been evident from the word go this season, with the defender organising those around him as he has marshalled a defence that has barely given up a chance, let alone a flurry of goals.

Max Power might be Sunderland’s skipper, and Grant Leadbitter might boast his own leadership qualities having previously skippered Middlesbrough, but Wright provides the kind of commanding on-field presence and reliable off-pitch persona that any manager would want at the core of their dressing room.

“Those characters, who are classed as leaders and will influence other people around them on the pitch or in the dressing room and the training ground, are hard to find,” said Parkinson. “They really are.

“Bailey is very good at that. He’s everything we want – he typifies how we want to play, and how we want to conduct ourselves on a day-to-day basis. He’s a great signing for us, and we’re enjoying working with him.”

Wright’s next test will come this afternoon when Sunderland lock horns with a Portsmouth side that have crossed their path on a number of high-profile occasions in the last few years.

The two clubs’ growing rivalry developed in the Black Cats’ first season in League One, when Jack Ross’ avenged their Checkatrade Trophy final defeat at Wembley by beating Portsmouth over two legs in the play-off semi-finals.

Last season, Jordan Willis and Chris Maguire were on target as Sunderland beat Pompey 2-1 in their second home game, but Kenny Jackett’s side gained their revenge when they won 2-0 at Fratton Park shortly before lockdown.

Portsmouth go into today’s game three places below the Black Cats in the table, but having been buoyed by a 2-0 midweek win over Gillingham that featured a goal from former Sunderland transfer target John Marquis.

“There’s no doubt that Portsmouth will be a team that will be up and about the top six,” said Parkinson. “I think the games against your perceived rivals in the top end of the table are always going to have that little bit of added importance.”