KARL Robinson and Mark Sykes were sent off as Oxford United fell to a controversial defeat at high-flying Sunderland.

The U’s head coach was dismissed for protesting Aiden McGeady’s 81st-minute goal at the Stadium of Light, the hosts' second, which came from a quickly-taken free-kick when Cameron Brannagan lying on the floor.

Sykes had been sent off on the hour mark for a second booking as an afternoon that began so promisingly for United ended in defeat.

James Henry’s precise effort had put the visitors ahead after 21 minutes, but Lynden Gooch scored his second goal against the U’s this season in first-half stoppage time.

In-form Sunderland gained the initiative after Sykes’ sending off, with McGeady and then Max Power sealing the points for the third-placed hosts.

United, meanwhile, fall to 11th in Sky Bet League One, four points outside the play-offs.

The trip to the Stadium of Light came a day too soon for Josh Ruffels, so Anthony Forde was promoted to the starting line-up in United’s only change.

Sam Long had been due to return from a hamstring injury, but an ear infection kept him out of the squad and leaves him doubtful for Monday’s visit of Accrington Stanley.

It meant Forde started at right back, with Jamie Hanson on the left, while Elliot Lee was fit enough to make the bench and Luke McNally was named in the matchday squad for the first time.

Despite United’s defensive issues they largely contained their high-flying opponents early on, with Jordan Jones’ miskick from 15 yards out Sunderland’s only opening.

The U’s began to find their feet, with Henry instrumental to a couple of well-worked moves, and they took the lead midway through the half.

Sunderland countered from a United corner, but a loose pass handed possession back to the visitors and Barker raced forward.

The pitch opened up for the Rangers loanee, who was able to run 50 yards with the ball, before he fed Henry to his right and the midfielder slammed low into the far corner from 20 yards.

Mark Sykes and Brandon Barker received quickfire bookings for late challenges on Max Power and Jones respectively, but otherwise United were relatively untroubled.

Part of that was due to Sunderland’s inability to find a rhythm and Gooch slicing a half-volley out for a throw after 28 minutes summed up their opening half an hour.

The home side finally sparked into life when McGeady curled a free-kick up and over the wall four minutes before the break, forcing Jack Stevens to push behind.

And they were level two minutes into stoppage-time.

Jones showed great feet to skip away from Hanson and advance into the penalty area, before sending a cross into the six-yard box that Gooch touched home.

The two benches exchanged words either side of half-time and referee Trevor Kettle steamed in to break up the disagreement, but on the pitch United restarted on the front foot.

Elliott Moore was only able to poke Brannagan’s corner at goalkeeper Lee Burge, while Barker continued to worry the Sunderland defence.

But the second half woke up in dramatic fashion on the hour mark, beginning with Hanson sliding in brilliantly to thwart Charlie Wyke when he was through on goal.

United went straight up the other end and the ball fell loose in the Sunderland box, with Sykes sliding in late on O’Nien in his eagerness to score.

There were few arguments from the U’s, who changed system to two banks of four behind Matty Taylor for the remaining 30 minutes.

Their defences were almost breached immediately as Gooch fired wide of Stevens’ far post from a tight angle, before Jones crashed a shot against the top of the bar.

In between those efforts Moore’s firm header was kept out on the line by Burge, before Lee, Dan Agyei and Liam Kelly came on for Henry, Mide Shodipo and Matty Taylor.

But just five minutes later Sunderland went ahead in controversial fashion.

The hosts took a free-kick quickly after Brannagan fouled ex-U’s man Chris Maguire 20 yards out, with the midfielder still on the floor.

Gooch received the ball in the penalty area and laid it back to McGeady, who curled into the bottom corner.

Robinson was sent off in the aftermath and momentarily remained in the stands behind the dugouts in protest, before eventually making way.

O’Nien had to make a crucial block as United poured forward in search of an equaliser late on, but this left them open.

Sunderland countered after substitute Joe Grayson gave the ball away and Power found himself one-on-one with Stevens, before finishing comfortably.

Sunderland (4-2-3-1): Burge, McLaughlin (Stewart 67), Sanderson, O’Nien, McFadzean, Scowen, Power, McGeady (Leadbitter 87), Gooch, Jones (Maguire 77), Wyke.

Unused subs: Matthews, Diamond, O’Brien, Winchester.

Booked: McLaughlin, Power.

Oxford United (4-3-3): Stevens, Forde (Winnall 90), Moore, Atkinson, Hanson, Henry (Kelly 75), Brannagan (Grayson 90), Sykes, Shodipo (Lee 75), Taylor (Agyei 75), Barker.

Unused subs: Eastwood, McNally.

Booked: Sykes, Barker, Henry, Moore.

Sent off: Sykes.

Referee: Trevor Kettle (Rutland).