SUNDERLAND will encounter the harsh reality of life in League One in the next four days, but Jack Ross is confident his promotion-seeking players are up to the challenge.

Having extended their unbeaten start to the league season with a resounding home win in front of almost 30,000 fans at the weekend, the Black Cats will face a rather different test as they play back-to-back away games at two of the smallest grounds in the league.

Ross’ side take on Gillingham at Priestfield Stadium this evening, before travelling to the permanent home of non-league side Kingstonian to face AFC Wimbledon on Saturday.

There will be precious little in the way of home comforts at either ground, but Sunderland cannot afford to take either of their opponents lightly. Gillingham are just three places below the Black Cats in the table, having suffered their first defeat of the campaign at the weekend, while AFC Wimbledon are yet to concede a goal after picking up five points from their first three matches.

Sweeping teams aside at the Stadium of Light is all well and good, but Sunderland will have to succeed in games such as this evening’s if they are to finish the season in an automatic promotion spot, and Ross claims his players are relishing the challenge.

“I don’t travel south thinking, ‘Will they fancy this’,” said the Sunderland boss. “I absolutely believe they will. They know that themselves.

“They’re starting to get a wee taste for it, I think they’re thinking, ‘We want to keep this run going’. They want to keep winning games, remaining undefeated and staying at the right end of the table.

“I’ve already seen encouraging signs that the players are able to deal with the challenges they’ll face. Luton was a good example of that because we were stretched personnel-wise and it was a tough game.

“I think the next challenge for the players will be remaining grounded on the back of days like Sunday because they did play well, there’s no getting over the fact they were good, and with that comes praise and adulation. It’s then how you get yourself back to the default setting to go again. That’s what the good teams do, they’re relentless in their work.

“To win a title or achieve promotion you’ve got to be that. That’s the next challenge for the players. Those challenges are always expressed to them, they’re always made aware of them, and so far every question that’s been asked of them, they’ve responded really well.”

While Sunderland’s starting line-up this evening will contain a handful of people who have plied their trade in the Premier League, Ross made a point this summer of recruiting a core of players with extensive experience of life in the third tier.

The likes of Jon McLaughlin, Jack Baldwin, Luke O’Nien, Max Power and Chris Maguire have all spent time in League One, and will not be fazed by the prospect of a trip to Gillingham.

They will help ensure Sunderland’s younger players are ready for what awaits them, and Maguire does not envisage any problems just because the Priestfield Stadium might not boast some of the trappings that are taken for granted at the Stadium of Light.

“I’ve been there myself, and they’re not easy places to go,” said Maguire, who scored his first Sunderland goal in Sunday’s win over Scunthorpe. “The pitches will be a bit better as we’re going there early in the season, so that might work to our benefit.

“They’ll try and make it tough for us the way Luton did. The pitch will be tight, it is at Gillingham. But it is up to us to go out and keep the momentum going.

“We’re confident in ourselves. We won’t go shouting about it, but we know within ourselves that we’ve got the ability to go and do it. We’ve got great depth in the squad, and we’ve got boys that no matter what formation we change to, they can go in and fill the role.”

Ross will not be making radical changes this evening, although he might have to start with Reece James at right-back if Adam Matthews fails to recover from the calf injury he suffered at the weekend.

However, the Sunderland boss concedes his players might have to change their approach on their travels, especially if they find themselves playing on a much tighter pitch than at the Stadium of Light.

“I think at the moment we’re a little bit restricted in what we can really change, particularly in the forward areas, and I think there has to be a certain amount of continuity,” said Ross. “But I also think we’ll have to adapt to away games.

“Even pitch dimensions are a factor. We’ve made the pitch bigger again at the Stadium of Light and there are a couple of away stadiums where the pitches are bigger than ours – slightly bigger – but there are some which are much tighter, like Luton for example.

“Luton probably surprised me a bit in terms of the tightness of the pitch. I knew the stadium was tight but in terms of the dimensions of the pitch, that was something I’ve looked at a bit more closely since then. Not that it changes completely how we play, but it just makes you a little bit more aware that it might be more difficult to do what we did against Scunthorpe at some away grounds.”

Sunderland (probable, 4-1-4-1): McLaughlin; James, Loovens, Baldwin, Oviedo; Cattermole; Gooch, Honeyman, Power, Maguire; Maja.