MARCUS STEWART last night warned Sunderland to stand up to the First Division bullies or risk missing out on promotion.

The experienced Black Cats striker will lead the line against his former club Ipswich Town tonight before making the trip to Sheffield United on Saturday.

Stewart - who spent a number of years in the Nationwide League while at Ipswich, Bristol Rovers and Huddersfield - has told the younger Sunderland stars just what to expect.

The 30-year-old suggested Sunderland were a soft touch when they lost 3-1 at Stoke City this month.

"At Stoke they intimidated us and we were beaten because of that," said Stewart. "In the Premier League you don't get that, you get teams wanting to pass you off the park.

"In this division everything is different. I spent five or six years in it and I know what to expect.

"Some of the young lads won't expect a physical challenge every week. If we can look after that side of things then I think the football will look after itself.

"We'll learn to live with the physical side and when we do I think we will have a chance, definitely."

Stewart also set Sheffield United as the perfect example to follow if Sunderland fail to bounce back to the Premiership at the first attempt.

The Blades, managed by short-fused boss Neil Warnock, are now sitting top of the table after overcoming the disappointement of a play-off defeat last season.

Stewart said: "If this year we don't manage to gain promotion then the young lads here will have gained a year's experience.

"We will be better for it next year - a bit like Sheffield United have been this season.

"They have got people like Michael Tonge and Michael Brown and done well. I look at us being very similar to them.

"They know what to expect week in and week out. Getting bullied. That's what it's like and a lot of players haven't experienced that kind of football."

Before Sunderland's trip to the Steel city, though, Ipswich provide Mick McCarthy's men with their next hurdle as they bid to earn their fourth successive home League win.

Stewart spent two and half years at Portman Road before moving to the North-East in August last year.

The former England schoolboy, who scored 27 goals in 75 League appearances for the Tractor Boys, admits his days in East Anglia were his best in the game.

And he hopes to see the club come through a difficult period soon. He said: "Ipswich looked after their finances well. There was no real wage cut while I was there.

"They did have to get rid of players but they are out of administration now.

"A few other players have left but I think that's been a case of them wanting to play in the Premier League rather than Ipswich needing to sell them.

"They have begun to turn it around. They did not start well last season and they just missed out on a play-off place. They are a team not to be underestimated."

McCarthy, meanwhile, is without midfielder Sean Thornton tonight through suspension.

And skipper Paul Thirlwell is struggling to be fit after picking up a calf injury in the win over Reading. Jeff Whitley and Grant Leadbitter are in contention for a place alongside Colin Healy.

Only 22,420 supporters turned out at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, but McCarthy sympathised with the stay-away fans.

He said: "We have had the supporters' backing and they have been fantastic when you think of what they have had to endure for the past two years. I was ecstatic, thrilled to get 27,000 in the ground the other week.

"I believe if you can capture the hearts and minds of supporters you are doing well.

"On Saturday it was a 5.35pm kick-off with another match on Tuesday.

"I might have stuck my 20 quid behind the bar and watched it on the television to be honest.

"I think we are getting them back and they will come back with more good results and performances. The ones who have come and watched have been brilliant.