SUNDERLAND manager Jack Ross is convinced the League One promotion race will have twists and turns right until the latter stages of the season because of how the bottom half of the division is shaping up.

The Black Cats head to relegation threatened Oxford United today knowing a victory could see the men from Wearside climb up to level on points with an automatic promotion spot.

But Sunderland have been caught out a couple of times by teams sitting in the lower half of the table, including against Shrewsbury and Walsall. Even last weekend they had to battle all the way to overcome basement boys Wimbledon at the Stadium of Light.

Only seven points separate second bottom Shrewsbury with mid-table and Oxford sit just a couple of places and a point above the Shrews.

Rather than suggest that should mean an easy afternoon for Sunderland at the Kassam Stadium, though, Ross believes the tightness of the table highlights how every team is fighting for their lives every time they cross the line.

He said: “I think it’s been highly competitive. There’s been little to choose between the teams at times and that’s reflected in the whole league.

“Naturally I’m always looking at the top six, top seven, and how close they are and yet when I look at the bottom part of the table it’s ridiculously tight from second-bottom upwards to almost mid-table.

“Maybe I expected the league to be more spread but there’s nothing between the top teams, and from middle to bottom there’s little to choose from them as well.

“It suggests it might not be until the end of the season before you have teams with nothing to play for, which sometimes can happen earlier in a 24-team league.

“I was watching the Newport game (against Middlesbrough) in the week and the commentator was saying they were in that position, so they’d rested players for the previous league games. In League One at the moment I don’t think there’ll be many if any teams completely safe from relegation and not competing to go up.”

Having found lower ranked teams tough nuts to crack in the majority of games this season, Ross will not be heading to Oxford banking on a routine victory – knowing how the stadiums Sunderland have visited have tended to turn up the noise.

He said: “People think they’re stereotypical answers, the reality is, the next game is the most important one and you can’t really look too far beyond because you can’t predict form, fitness, what the other team will do.

“There's so many unknowns. For us it is very much about trying to beat Oxford on Saturday and if we do, brilliant, then we look forward to Tuesday against Blackpool.

“There's very few occasions where teams run away with the league. If you look throughout Europe – not just the top leagues, but the ones below – there's always exceptions to it, and PSG might be one in France, but generally nobody runs away with it.  “The size of some of the clubs in this division are big, and you can see that too in the Championship, so it just shows you how difficult it is to keep dragging yourself up the way.  “I always knew it would be incredibly challenging at this level but we've grown used to all these different things, like the way teams approach it at the Stadium of Light, and the way our away games are. I realised pretty early it was going to be pretty hard going.”

Now that the transfer window has closed, though, Ross knows what size squad he has at his disposal and is confident he has the options available to him to sustain a challenge for a top two spot.

“There are loads of different stages of the season you can look upon either at the time as being pivotal or on reflection as a really important period. For example, you take the Christmas and New Year period because of the number of fixtures,” he said.

“There are always different arguments and usually when a team's played more games they say it's about having the points, and the others say it's about games in hand. That's the psychology of the game.

“The reality is that when you break it down into points per game, you know all along what you need to try to give yourself a good chance of promotion and it's working around that.  “I try to look at it that way to keep a clearer head and not get drawn into positions because it's not a false position, it's an accurate position but the interesting thing is you can change position very quickly and it's in your own hands to do so.”

The arrivals of Grant Leadbitter, Jimmy Dunne, Lewis Morgan – who all faced Wimbledon – and Will Grigg before the window closed has clearly strengthened Ross’ hand – and he hopes that proves to be the case.

He said: “Players like Lewis, Grant and Will, if you look at the number of minutes they've played this season they're in the lower half of the squad, then you've got somebody like Lynden whose played a really high number of minutes this season and it's his first experience of doing that. He looks strong, still, but it's how it impacts on him in the later part of the season.

 “But I wouldn't want to make wholesale changes on a game-by-game basis. Although we have a strong squad, it's important we get that flow of good performances.

“On Thursday the whole group was involved in what we did in training, and they understand what we want to do, but they also understand if players get the opportunity to play and they're winning and playing well, that's football – you generally keep your place in the team and it's up to the rest to take their opportunity should it come along.  “I don't mind that side of it because I keep speaking to the players and I never have an issue with them being frustrated or disappointed – I'd have an issue if they didn't.

“I've got a group where if they find themselves out of the team, they are disappointed and they tell me, which is fine. It's just about encouraging them and making sure when the opportunity comes along, they grab it.”

And he thinks Oxford have shown they can deliver. He said: “If you look at their recent home games, Portsmouths, Barnsleys, they have produced good results. That showed how good a team they are and can be on the day. It was a difficult match when we played at home too."