A Good Friday for Sunderland? For a while, it looked like being an exceptional one when they were winning and both Hull City and Peterborough United were on course to drop points, but while their two main rivals in the race for automatic promotion both recovered to claim victories, the Black Cats’ eighth win in their last ten league matches still left them with plenty to be satisfied about. On and off the pitch, they showcased their fighting qualities.

The events in the tunnel at both half-time and full-time were nothing to be proud of, and the repercussions of the incident that allegedly saw a member of Sunderland’s coaching staff clash with Oxford United goalkeeper Jack Stevens could run and run. Karl Robinson was still threatening to get the police involved when he left the Stadium of Light last night, but even if there are no legal charges, the FA will surely want to have their say over a pair of scuffles that clearly got out of hand.

On the pitch, though, the Black Cats could be much prouder of their efforts, with their victory having teed up Monday’s trip to Peterborough perfectly. If not quite winner takes all, Sunderland’s Bank Holiday visit to London Road threatens to have a major impact on the race for the top two.

The Black Cats looked in a sport of bother yesterday, with an uninspired first-half showing leaving them trailing to James Henry’s opener. Lynden Gooch’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time could not have come at a better time, but while the second-half dismissal of Oxford midfielder Mark Sykes undoubtedly made Sunderland’s task easier, the hosts still had to display a fair amount of composure to ensure they made their numerical advantage count.

Aiden McGeady’s first league goal since the end of January gave them the lead with nine minutes left, and their victory was secured by Max Power’s stoppage-time strike, which sparked a provocative reaction in front of the Oxford dug-out. By then, an already-fractious afternoon had well and truly reached boiling point.

There was no real sign of the controversy that was to come in the early stages, although it quickly became apparent that Sunderland were not going to have things their own way. Oxford were the better side for most of the first half, with Brandon Barker dictating play as he drifted inside from the left and the lively Olamide Shodipo troubling Callum McFadzean whenever he got the chance to run with the ball at his feet down the visitors’ right.

Sunderland’s attacking throughout the first half lacked incision and purpose, with Charlie Wyke spending most of his time with his back to goal and Power having to expend most of his energy shutting down Oxford attacks rather than looking to get on the front foot.

Lynden Gooch summed up Sunderland’s failings when he let fly from 30 yards out shortly before the half-hour mark, only for the ball to skew off his foot and eventually go out for a throw-in. That the mishit effort was the home side’s only effort in the opening half-hour spoke volumes, as did the fact that by the time Gooch tried his luck, Sunderland were already behind.

Oxford’s counter-attacking capabilities had been apparent from an early stage, and there was much to admire in the silky-smooth manner in which they swept upfield in the 21st minute to claim the lead.

The move that culminated in the opener began deep in Oxford’s own half, with a breakdown in communication between McGeady and the fit-again Jordan Jones handing possession over to the visitors.

Oxford swept upfield in the space of two slick passes, and having spied Henry in space on the corner of the penalty area, Barker rolled the ball into the midfielder’s path. There was still plenty to do when Henry lined up his shot, but he drilled an unerring low finish beyond Lee Burge and into the far corner.

To Sunderland’s credit, the opener sparked a reaction, and the hosts gradually became more threatening as half-time approached.

McGeady sliced a shot over after Wyke teed him up, and the Irishman forced Stevens into his first save four minutes before the break as he fired in a direct free-kick that was clawed around the post.

With McGeady on one wing and Jones on the other, Sunderland were able to threaten from both flanks, and it was the latter that proved crucial as the Black Cats levelled in the second minute of first-half stoppage time.

Having been picked out by Luke O’Nien’s cross-field pass, Jones produced a fine piece of trickery to enable him to burst past Jamie Hanson and break into the box. He picked out Gooch with a low ball into the middle, and after bursting in front of his marker, the American was able to prod home a close-range strike. It was Gooch’s fifth goal of the season, and in conjunction with his match-winner at Wembley, further evidence of his growing importance as an attacking midfielder.

Sunderland’s equaliser changed the tone of the second half, and the complexion of the game changed again when Oxford were reduced to ten men just after the hour mark.

Sykes had picked up a yellow card for a foul in the first half, and the Oxford midfielder saw red when he received a second booking for a lunge on O’Nien in the heart of Sunderland’s penalty area. In fairness to Sykes, a loose ball was there to be won, but once he thudded into O’Nien’s leg, there was only going to be one outcome.

Seconds before Sykes’ dismissal, Hanson had produced a perfectly-timed sliding challenge to prevent Wyke from shooting after he burst onto McGeady’s floated through ball, and once it was 11-against-ten, it became a case of one-way traffic as Sunderland’s players encamped themselves in Oxford’s defensive third.

Ross Stewart forced Stevens into a decent save within seconds of leaving the substitutes’ bench, and after finding himself in a pocket of space 20 yards out, Jones rapped a rasping drive against the crossbar.

Jones’ departure with 13 minutes was something of a surprise – the Rangers loanee was the most creative player in the home side’s ranks by a distance – but within four minutes of Chris Maguire coming on to replace him, Sunderland were celebrating claiming the lead.

It was a controversial goal, with the taking of a quick free-kick while an Oxford player was down infuriating Robinson to the point where he was sent to the stands for his complaints. With the visitors’ defence in disarray, Gooch dribbled his way in from the right before pulling the ball back to McGeady, who swept an excellent first-time finish into the net.

O’Nien and Dion Sanderson both made important interventions as Oxford’s ten men tried to fashion an equaliser, but the final say went to Power in stoppage time.

Wyke found himself in space on the right as Sunderland counter-attacked with their opponents having committed a lot of men upfield, and after the striker squared the ball into Power’s path, Sunderland’s skipper rolled home his side’s third.

His celebration in front of the Oxford dug-out was probably over the top, but it reinforced just how important the win had been.