Jack Ross believes Sunderland’s record against their promotion rivals shows his squad has nothing to fear heading into the League One play-offs.
But he admits they must up their performance level considerably to stand any chance of winning promotion after another poor display on the road meant they ended the league campaign with back-to-back defeats.
Sunderland, with just one win in seven games, are lacking any positive momentum heading into their two-legged semi-final clash against Portsmouth, the first leg taking place at the Stadium of Light on Saturday teatime.
The late defeat to Fleetwood Town in midweek was followed up with another desperate performance at Roots Hall, a hungrier Southend United running out 2-1 winners to secure their survival.
Ross admits the performance of his players was well short of the levels they need to be at and has said there will be changes to personnel for the play-offs, with Lee Cattermole, Aiden
McGeady, George Honeyman and Lewis Morgan set to return.
Sunderland ended the campaign fifth, their lowest ever league finish but Ross is taking positives from their record against the top six sides this campaign heading into the play-offs.
The Black Cats have been beaten five times this season (Burton A, Portsmouth A, Coventry City H, Fleetwood Town A, Southend A) - but only once to a promotion rival, the December
loss at Fratton Park when Sunderland played most of the second half with ten men following Glenn Loovens’ red.
Ross said: "The defeat at Fratton Park is the only game we’ve lost to any of the teams in the top seven. That’s a positive obviously.
“We lost the Checkatrade final, but it was a draw over the course of the game.
“I do feel as if the players have generally responded well to playing against the best teams in the league and the bigger atmospheres.
“That’s something we’ll stress to the players. We’ve got an opportunity to reset and refocus now.
"You can’t just sweep everything under the carpet from the last couple of weeks, but the truth now is that it becomes about focus and having a big focus on this game on Saturday and the
second leg the following midweek.
“I would look at it and say if you are going to have back-to-back defeats for the first time all season, it’s probably the best time to get it. It’s a clean slate over these three games.
“People might point to a lack of momentum of whatever it may be, but the truth is that these three games are very much in isolation.
“They’re very difficult to predict in terms of what you will get from them, but that might help us. It might just help us reset and refocus.
“When we come back to work, it’s about just focusing on this game on Saturday.”
Sunderland will have to bounce back quickly from the defeat at Roots Hall, sub Stephen Humphrys scoring a dramatic 87th minute winner after Chris Maguire’s 75th minute penalty had
cancelled out John White’s first half acrobatic opener.
Ross added: “Saturday bothered me performance wise, and the latter stages of the game at Fleetwood, but prior to that, I thought we had been displaying a bit of consistency, which I was pleased about.
“Saturday was a long way short of it, but it was probably a team that will vary considerably from the team that plays in the play-offs. That’s the truth.
“I think in some cases, it probably gave me more answers than questions in terms of the games that are coming up.
“They knew there’s an opportunity to be involved in these games that are coming up because I’ve been quite fair in that respect this season.
“Some of the changes we made were enforced, but there were a couple that were trying to bring a bit of freshness to it.
“When you do that, you’re looking for those that have been given the opportunity to take it. But we just didn’t play well.
“We’ve had a certain element of consistency in what we’ve done this season. You wanted to be going into these matches on the back of a positive run.
“We’ve not done that because the performance was a long way short of where it needs to be at. You’re always judged on the end result, but in recent weeks, while we’ve drawn games or
not won them, the performance has been okay so it’s been easier for me to be positive.
“When the two go hand in hand, I can be more critical, and we didn’t play well, not by a long stretch.”