HAVING spent the last few weeks chopping and changing in an attempt to find a winning formula, Jack Ross has urged his Sunderland players to ‘make themselves un-droppable’ in the final 16 games of the League One season.

The Black Cats host Accrington Stanley this evening hoping to reduce the four-point gap that currently separates them from the automatic promotion places, and with Duncan Watmore unavailable in the wake of his midweek exertions against Blackpool, Ross will once again have to tinker with his starting line-up at the Stadium of Light.

You have to go back to December to find the last time Ross selected the same starting XI for consecutive league matches, and before that, it was October when the Black Cats boss last stuck with the same starting side.

There have been occasions when his hand has been forced, whether because of injury, suspension or players coming into or out of the club, but his tinkering also reflects a degree of dissatisfaction with recent performances.

There were signs of improvement as Sunderland created a succession of chances on Tuesday night, and with his January signings now firmly bedded in, Ross is hoping his players force him to start naming a settled team in the next few weeks.

“I think consistency of selection is always beneficial,” said the Sunderland boss. “I think players enjoy that, and it usually suggests you’re in a good place as a team.

“I don’t like it (changing things) because it can sometimes look as though you’re looking for the answers, but sometimes you need to do that. For all the stuff you do here on the training pitch, you don’t really know until you see it out there on a match day.

“There is that little bit where although you’re always dictated to by results, I’ve been a little bit frustrated recently because it’s just not quite felt right. That’s not a criticism of the players because, in that period, they’ve been consistent in their approach and their desire, it’s just that it’s not quite clicked.

“The other night (against Blackpool) was more encouraging in that respect because it looked a lot more like some of the performances we’d been giving earlier in the season at home. For long periods, I thought we had a team that are in a good position in the league, really hemmed in.

“If they’re doing that consistently, they’ll stay in the team, and I think I’ve shown that right through this season. When we have been on runs like that and players have played well, they have stayed in the side.”

With Sunderland playing a day before their promotion rivals, tonight’s televised fixture offers an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet before the Saturday games.

Getting the game finished would be something of an achievement – Sunderland’s away game at Accrington has been abandoned or rescheduled on three different occasions already – but Ross will have to make do without Watmore as he does not want to take any risks with the forward’s ongoing rehabilitation following successive cruciate ligament operations.

Watmore will not be considered for tonight’s game, but should be available for next Tuesday’s home match with Gillingham.

“He won't be involved, which is a blow for us because his performance (on Tuesday) was so positive,” said Ross. “But the reality of his recovery is that it's not possible for him to play two games in such quick succession.

“That won't be the case indefinitely, but when you're recovering from an ACL injury and you've had two in a short period of time, the recovery time between games has to be longer.

“It’s not me influencing Duncan in that respect, it’s more him influencing me. It’s what’s been in place for a while, and it’ll continue being in place until he gets past a certain landmark in his recovery and rehab.

“It’s been two serious injuries in a short period of time, and the risk of suffering another injury decreases as time goes on.”

Watmore played in something of a free-attacking role on Tuesday, and while he spent the early part of his career playing as an out-and-out winger, Ross does not really see him as an orthodox wide man.

“The other night, we asked to play in a half-and-half position, and that for me is probably his ideal role,” he said. “I think he enjoys it the most as well.

“It’s been difficult for us to do that because of personnel and what we had available. The other night was the first time we’ve really been able to utilise him in the area of the pitch we thought would be the best for him.

“To his credit, the things we asked him to do from there, he did very well, and you could see how much he helped us.”

Sunderland are unbeaten in their last nine League One matches, but six of those games have finished in a 1-1 draw and scoring a second goal has proved a major issue for a team that nevertheless find themselves as the only side in the country to have scored in all of their league outings.

A degree of edginess was apparent on Tuesday – a small number of fans booed the home players off the field at the half-time and full-time whistles – and while the psychological barrier of playing at the Stadium of Light was removed in the early part of the season, performing on home soil remains something of an issue.

“I think everybody's aware of the situation, and I think it goes with the territory of playing for a big club and having a big fanbase and big expectations,” said Ross.

“You can play for a club that doesn't have all those (pressures) and you don't have to deal with it but equally you don't get the rewards when things go well. If we score at the stadium or we're playing well, that support that comes behind us should always supersede the other side of it.

“But you've got to be broad-shouldered to deal with it - managers, staff, players. It's not by any means a criticism of the supporters because they're desperate for us to do well, but sometimes that thirst for success or wins can be displayed in frustration.”

Sunderland (probable, 4-2-3-1): McLaughlin; O’Nien, Baldwin, Dunne, James; Leadbitter, Power; Morgan, Honeyman, McGeady; Grigg.