ADAM MATTHEWS claims the current season is ‘payback time’ for Sunderland’s long-suffering fans, and admits it is imperative the club builds on its strong start to secure a return to the Championship at the first time of asking.

Like the rest of his team-mates who were on Sunderland’s books before the start of the current campaign, Matthews has experienced plenty of misery during his Wearside career. Having joined the Black Cats from Celtic in 2015, the defender suffered back-to-back relegations as his employers tumbled into the third tier for only the second time in their history.

Life in League One provides an opportunity to stop the rot, and as they prepare for a rare weekend off because of international commitments, Sunderland’s players can reflect on a decent couple of months.

They sit in third position in the table, having only suffered one league defeat all term, and are on the brink of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Checkatrade Trophy after seeing off Carlisle United on Tuesday night.

Some might regard the old Football League Trophy as an irrelevance, but having seen how losing can become an entrenched habit, Matthews feels it was important to keep the current winning run going two days ago.

As Jack Ross and his players are the first to acknowledge, there is still plenty of work to be done. But having been on a downward spiral for most of the last decade, at least Sunderland is a club that is beginning to edge in the right direction.

“It’s nice to win games,” said Matthews, who has established himself as Sunderland’s first-choice right-back in the last few weeks. “At any level you play at, a footballer wants to win games. We haven't had that feeling for a long time, so hopefully this season we can get that feeling, win promotion and take it into the next season and kick on again. That's our goal and what everyone in the changing room wants to do.

“It’s what we want, and it’s what the supporters want too. I think even last season, the fans were brilliant. It was tough for us on the pitch, but really tough for them off it. But you can see with the attendances we've had this season, they're behind the team.

“They’ve always been brilliant and want their team to do well, which we haven’t done before this season. I think it is time we repay them now, and hopefully we can get promotion.”

Ross was understandably keen to enact a major overhaul at the Stadium of Light this summer, but while a host of senior players left in the wake of the drop from the Championship, the Black Cats boss was able to retain an experienced core with a point to prove.

Matthews falls into that category, along with the likes of Lee Cattermole, Bryan Oviedo, George Honeyman and Aiden McGeady, who have also played influential roles so far this term.

Ross has blooded a number of youngsters this season, and will continue to rely on the output from Sunderland’s academy. Crucially, however, he can also call on some older heads to help his less experienced players along.

“We've got a lot of good youngsters coming through, but I think we’ve got a really good blend,” said Matthews, who turns 27 in January. “We obviously signed Glenn (Loovens), and I think that was a big one for us in terms of the changing room, on and off the pitch.

“Then at the other end of the scale, you’ve got Jack (Diamond) who played the other night, and Benji (Kimpioka), who did well. Even Lee (Connelly) should have scored. He did well too. We have a young team, with a couple of experienced players, which every young player needs. So I think we have a good bond in the changing room.”

As a 14-times Wales international, who is on standby for this week’s matches against Spain and the Republic of Ireland, Matthews was the subject of considerable speculation in the wake of last season’s relegation.

A number of Championship clubs are understood to have inquired about his availability, but he insists he never considered agitating for a move, even though playing in League One could have a negative impact on his international aspirations.

“I was happy to stay,” he said. “We came back in pre-season and it was a fresh start for everyone. The club was taken over and there was a new manager, so it felt like a new club and a fresh start for everyone. It’s been brilliant so far, and hopefully we can keep it going.”