JACK ROSS claims Sunderland’s fine run of form has increased the likelihood of the club’s out-of-contract players committing their long-term future to the Stadium of Light.

The Black Cats head to Walsall in the FA Cup second round tomorrow looking to extend an unbeaten run that currently stretches to 14 matches in all competitions.

While Ross has been focusing his attention on matters on the field in the last few weeks, Sunderland’s off-field focus has fallen on the trio of youngsters who are due to become free agents at the end of the season.

While the Black Cats will trigger a clause that automatically extends captain George Honeyman’s contract by another 12 months, Josh Maja, Lynden Gooch and Denver Hume are all about to enter the final six months of their current deal.

Sunderland officials have held a series of talks with the trio and their representatives, and are hoping to start tying up the loose ends of the discussions in the next few weeks.

Ross is confident all three players will sign new long-term contracts, and feels his side’s performances in the last couple of months have helped persuade them to shelve any thoughts of leaving Wearside.

“The dialogue I’ve had with the players in question has always been positive,” said the Sunderland boss. “And I think that’s a genuine feel for how they are at the club. You can never say never in football, you just don’t know what’s around the corner, but I’m still very optimistic that these players will remain at the club.

“I think it helps that they’re playing well, and they’re enjoying their football. There’s two sides to that – one, it attracts more attention, but two, it makes it much harder for them to decide they don’t want to commit to being here.

“The great thing at the moment is that they’re also seeing the best of this club, in terms of the fan base and how they’re embraced. When I was trying to sign players in the summer, I was telling them, ‘This is an opportunity to come and be a hero’.

“At the time, I probably didn’t realise that was just as true for some of the current players as well. It’s also an opportunity for them to be heroes, and some of them are doing that at the moment.

“Listen, they’ve got a bit to go to completely have that status, but at the moment, they’re putting themselves in the forefront of the supporters’ affections. I’m sure it’s a good feeling for them as well.”

Maja has been the subject of interest from a number of clubs in the Championship, but Sunderland officials have pointed to the experience of Joel Asoro to try to persuade the 19-year-old that his long-term ambitions would best be served by continuing to play regular first-team football on Wearside.

Unlike Maja, Asoro opted to leave Sunderland in the summer, but while he started the season in Swansea City’s first team, the Swedish youngster has not made a Championship start since the end of August.

Maja, on the other hand, scored his 12th goal of the season in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Barnsley, and is being talked of as one of the most exciting youngsters in the whole of the Football League.

As well as looking to tie up existing contractual issues, Ross will also spend January attempting to add to his squad.

Sunderland’s finances remain tight, and he could struggle to pay to bring anyone in unless a hgh-earning player leaves, so he will continue to closely monitor the market for loan players and free agents.

Former Newcastle United defender David Edgar falls into the latter category, having been released by Canadian side Ottawa FC earlier this year, but while Ross admits has been offered the opportunity to sign the 31-year-old, he is still pondering his options.

“There’s nothing there at the moment,” he said. “At the moment, it’s nothing more than another player who’s been put to us, although his circumstances are obviously a bit different because he’s unattached. As you can imagine, though, at this time of year, you get a lot of players put your way.”

One player who is gaining an increasingly prominent position in Ross’ thoughts is Duncan Watmore, and the former England Under-21 international is set to make his eagerly-awaited first-team return in Tuesday’s Checkatrade Trophy game with Notts County.

Watmore played for 57 minutes of Monday’s Under-23s game with Middlesbrough, marking his return to competitive action following an injury lay-off of more than 12 months.

Having already recovered from one cruciate ligament operation, the winger was forced to undergo surgery for the same problem last autumn.

He returned to full training at the start of the month, and while he missed a penalty on Monday night, his involvement in the game at Eppleton marked an important step on his comeback trail.

His return to the first team will be another significant step forward, and while he will not be involved at Walsall tomorrow, he has been pencilled in for next week’s Checkatrade knock-out tie.

“It (the Middlesbrough game) was another big step for him, and he did well,” said Ross. “It was a competitive game on Monday. All Under-23 games are competitive to an extent, but I think with it being a derby match, it had that bit of competitiveness about it.

“He had to withstand challenges in it that were reflective of how a normal game will be. He trained again today, and obviously we’ve look at the Checkatrade game on Tuesday, and potentially his involvement in that.

“If he does become involved in that, it’s another really big step for him because it is a first-team game. That’s him pretty much there, which is brilliant for us, and brilliant for him, first and foremost.”