THERE will be another return to the Stadium of Light this weekend when Sunderland manager Chris Coleman knows his players can’t afford to go into their shells – again – in the battle to avoid League One football.

Despite suffering the 19th league defeat of the season at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, the only positive that could be taken from the game is that the gap to safety remains the same.

There are still four points separating the Black Cats from fourth from bottom Barnsley, although it might as well be five because of an inferior goal difference. With nine matches remaining, time is running out to climb out of the bottom three and to safety.

Preston have a genuine chance of a play-off place under Simon Grayson’s successor Alex Neil.

And Coleman has to come up with a way of ensuring his Sunderland team turn up on home turf, with just two wins at the Stadium of Light this season – and they hadn’t won there in a year before that.

Sunderland’s supporters are quite rightly annoyed by the situation the club finds itself in and their constant failures only increases tension – like a week ago when their last home date ended in a 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa.

Coleman said: “I have been here three months, I have seen both sides, when we are booed off and then clapped off. The fans will only come with us if we max it out on the pitch. That’s not being afraid on the pitch, if they smell that they come with you.

“The fans were great against Middlesbrough (in the previous home game), we have another game against a team above us pushing for promotion. But forget about the opposition, it is about us, Sunderland.

“It’s whether we can sneak through the game or impose ourselves on it and take it to them. If we do that then we will have the fans with us no matter how many are there.”

It has been suggested that Sunderland are playing better away from home, although the reality is that they have still not won any of their last nine matches. The fact that a defeat arrives on their travels probably just softens the blow.

There is no hiding from a defeat at the Stadium of Light, though, and they have remaining home dates with Preston, Sheffield Wednesday, Norwich, Burton and Wolves.

Of those teams only Norwich have nothing to play for at this stage, so the fixtures should have plenty riding on them and a Sunderland squad low on confidence is going to have to spring more than one surprise to stay up.

Regardless of what division Sunderland find themselves in next season, the summer is likely to be an uncertain one for a number of players – including midfielder Didier Ndong.

Coleman allowed the Gabon international to head to Watford on loan for the rest of the season in January but the deal has not turned out like had been hoped.

Sunderland were keen to let him join the Hornets provided the likelihood was that he would complete a permanent switch in the summer if he played a certain number of matches.

However, he is still yet to figure for Watford and he was overlooked completely for the second game in a row at Arsenal on Saturday. Sunderland will still be keen to offload the midfielder at the end of the season.

Watford manager Javi Gracia said: "We choose other options because we have more players available and I choose what I think is best."

There are only eight games remaining for Ndong to force his way into the Watford side to prove he deserves a full-time switch, which would be worth around the £6m mark to Sunderland.

Sunderland defender Paddy McNair, meanwhile, has been called up for the Northern Ireland squad to face South Korea next month in Belfast.