WITH Sunderland leading the Championship and their new sponsors talking up long-term ambitions of success in the Champions League, a reflective Roy Keane last night welcomed the rising expectation levels on Wearside.

After the announcement of a lucrative four-year sponsorship deal, which could eventually be worth around £10m, with Boylesports, there was an admission from the Irish bookmakers that success on the biggest stages was what they were dreaming of with the Black Cats.

Despite knowing promotion back to the Premiership has not yet been secured, the league leaders are attracting stay-away fans back to the Stadium of Light in their thousands, with optimism and excitement mirroring those of the club's latest backers.

And Keane, although keen to agree with chairman Niall Quinn's assertion that such fanciful aspirations of European supremacy should remain pipedreams for now, is delighted with the positive reaction his title-chasing squad are receiving.

Over 40,000 are expected through the turnstiles for the second home game in a row against Queen's Park Rangers this afternoon, when Sunderland would hope to extend their five-point gap over third-placed Birmingham.

Should that be the case, with just three league matches remaining, the comments made by Boylesports' managing director John Boyle - when he suggested anything is possible with Keane and Quinn at the helm - would no doubt be uttered by many of the club's fans.

"I liked what John Boyle said," said Keane. "He's enthusiastic and he's got belief, I like talking to people like that. We're all optimistic, I wouldn't knock people like that.''

"He's a clever man, probably a lot cleverer than any of us, and he gave an honest answer. If he's building his hopes up I'm glad. I'd rather that than be sitting next to someone who is hoping we can battle relegation and just survive."

Given the turnaround in support of Sunderland since his installation into the manager's chair back in August, Keane knows he has been responsible for guiding the club though darker times.

When he first took charge he spent a few nights talking at fans' forums and, after similar exercises carried out by Quinn in recent weeks, there has even been talk of expanding the 49,000 capacity at some stage in the future.

"We need to get out of the Championship and kick on. You can talk all day about what might happen but I'm just preparing for Saturday," said Keane.

"To have got this side from second bottom to top is my job and I'm paid very, very well to do that, that's my contract. I believed we could turn things round and maybe we're ahead of time in terms of the spirit and belief we've got among the staff and supporters and it's a real added bonus.

"That's why I took the job. If I'd felt we'd still be round the bottom now I wouldn't have taken the job. I've tried to change the mentality of the club and we've got a chance and we need to keep fighting hard."

Sunderland are looking to make it 17 league matches unbeaten today, but even before that run of form Keane was rarely ruffled, maintaining the same solid exterior that he has become renowned for.

And spending time at home with his family has given him the break from the job that has proved to be to the benefit of the club.

"I've just had two days back in Manchester and it felt like I didn't even have a job," he said. "I need to switch off. It's about getting the balance right.

"As a player, when I was off I wasn't really off. It helps that I don't need to be physically in top shape. I need mentally to be in top shape. "I will just put the mobile phone on silent and maybe get back to people in the evening. It's a conscious thing I've done. You learn that from other managers you've worked with."

Four wins in their last five matches has ensured QPR are almost certainly staying in the Championship next season, with seven points separating them from the bottom three.

But that does not concern Keane. He added: "Being top of the Championship shouldn't be a great pressure situation for us because we're ready for it. Where would I expect us to be? Near the middle or bottom? This is where I expect us to be.

"My players are certainly bad losers. "We're drilling it into them every day in training, even with a game of cards on the bus. I'm a bad loser."