PUT the off-pitch brawls and double red card to one side and there were several positives to take from Oxford United's performance at Sunderland.

The U's were the better team until Mark Sykes' sending-off on the hour mark, and even then it did not feel like they were clinging on for dear life.

With United down to ten men and the scores level, they had no choice but to sit back, soak up the pressure and try to hit the hosts on the counter-attack.

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It was a real blow, as the visitors had contained Sky Bet League One's form side with relative ease until then.

United cut off the supply to 27-goal striker Charlie Wyke and restricted Jordan Jones, Lynden Gooch and Aiden McGeady to long-range efforts in the first half.

The latter had Sunderland's first shot on target as late as the 41st minute, which only came from a free-kick 25 yards out.

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That being said, United's one effort before the break came through James Henry's excellent goal and they should have created more, particularly with the way the dangerous Brandon Barker was worrying the home defence.

Sunderland's equaliser was a sucker-punch - although it feels wrong to use that phrase considering the off-pitch events - but you have to praise Jones' quality footwork to beat Jamie Hanson on the right side, which pulled Rob Atkinson out of position and left Gooch unmarked to stab home.

We will never know how much the half-time flare-ups affected United's mindset, but they looked just as likely to score as Sunderland until Sykes was dismissed.

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The midfielder only received his first booking for a few soft fouls, but it was hard to argue with Trevor Kettle - for once - as he showed a second yellow.

It has been difficult to get this far without mentioning the referee, but he took centre stage for McGeady's goal.

It looked like Cameron Brannagan was getting to his feet after fouling Chris Maguire, but for Kettle to watch the U's midfielder fall back to the floor and let play continue was staggering.

Seeing the refeee blow for so many minor fouls throughout the 90 minutes had been frustrating, but at least none of them had directly affected the outcome of the game.

United could have snatched a second late on, but it was always likely Sunderland would counter - and the less said about Max Power's celebration, the better.