DARLINGTON manager Martin Gray hopes his players will “rise to the occasion” when they welcome Sunderland to Heritage Park this afternoon.

Quakers meet Gus Poyet’s side in their third pre-season fixture after games against Newcastle Benfield and Northallerton Town.

Gray’s men went down 2-1 at the hands of Benfield last weekend, before goals from new signings Liam Hatch, Graeme Armstrong and Tom Portas, as well as Amar Purewal, sealed a 5-0 win at Northallerton on Tuesday.

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Today’s game, which is a special “Return to Darlington” fundraiser, presents far superior opposition with the Black Cats expected to field a strong team including new signings Billy Jones, Jordi Gomez and Costel Pantilimon, but Gray admits it is a great opportunity for his squad to test themselves.

“You’re not going to get better quality than the Premier League and it’s a big plus for the club and the fans to have Sunderland come to us,” Quakers boss said. “It’s another chance for us to see where we’re at and hopefully we’ll see our players rise to the occasion.

“They are bringing a first team and they’ve got a big strong squad so it’ll be exciting for our fans and hopefully it’ll be a sell-out.”

Darlington’s fixtures for the new season were released on Thursday and the schedule sees them face neighbours Spennymoor at Brewery Field in their second game.

Gray said: “It’s going to be a good start to the season, especially playing Spennymoor in the second game. Both games are before Christmas, which is a bit odd, though.

“Both clubs have got good players, but I think Salford will put up a real challenge and be up their fighting for the title.

“We’ve just got to go one step further. We didn’t need to make big changes to the squad. We just need to get off to a good start and see where we can go from there.”

There will be segregation of fans inside Heritage Park.

Darlington supporters can only access the ground through the two turnstiles on the left side, at the end of the main stadium car park. Sunderland supporters can only enter through the other two turnstiles (closest to the March Hare pub). Car parking is available behind the March Hare pub on a first come, first served basis.