JACK ROSS thinks Sunderland have given themselves the perfect Wembley warm-up and has ordered every single member of his squad to enjoy the build-up to what should be a special occasion in the capital.

The Black Cats managed to head into a two-week break before the Checkatrade Trophy final with a win behind them after coming from behind to defeat Walsall at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.

Due to international call-ups, Sunderland will not play until they face Portsmouth at Wembley on Sunday, March 31, so Ross was desperate for his team to claim three points to ensure they remain in control in the promotion picture – even if they remain two points behind second placed Barnsley with a game in hand.

“I just think with this break coming up we understood the importance of Saturday,” he said. “More than anything else, we just looked at the fact we didn’t have a league game for a couple of weeks.

“It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the players with the games we’ve had and the travelling we’ve done. A lot of them were running a little bit on empty.

“I think that was the biggest driver for us – we knew we had to find a way to win the game and then we could have a breather. Psychologically I think it will also help us enjoy the build-up to the final as well.

“I am delighted we have won, we have a fractured week, players away, then we come together properly in the lead up to the Portsmouth game, it’s encouraging the players to enjoy that.

“It is not an occasion that will come around very often. It is a big week for the club and it helps us to enjoy that, to forget about the league.”

Sunderland were not at their best against Walsall and fell behind when Josh Gordon flicked in an early opener. Even though it required guts and determination after that, Ross’ team managed to turn things around when Lee Cattermole’s 32nd minute leveller was followed by a Will Grigg winner with 19 minutes remaining.

There were very few stand out performers on the day, but Luke O’Nien at right-back was once again hugely impressive and he had his manager purring.

O’Nien arrived from Wycombe as a centre-midfielder and is now getting up and down the flank like he has been playing right-back throughout his career.

Ross said: “Luke’s been consistently very good. I did have a little chuckle earlier in the week when I was being asked about him playing in the middle of the pitch.

“He can play there but his consistency of performance he has been at his best playing full-back, nobody can deny that. That’s where he’s made his name, if you like.

“He’s also been part of a defence in recent weeks which has had four clean sheets out of six. His understanding of the role’s getting better but above all his willingness to put his body on the line in all areas of the pitch is evident all the time.

“Because of his approach to the game and his appetite for the game I’ve commented internally that I could probably put him anywhere on the pitch and he’d do a job because he’d make sure he knew as much as he can about playing that position and try and keep getting better at it.

“Also, the truth is, I break down players’ attributes quite often and look at what you need to play in a certain position and he’s got a lot. That’s why we played him there in the first place.”

O’Nien enjoyed three impressive years at Wycombe after leaving Watford in 2015 and Ross is convinced his summer recruit can keep improving and climbing.

He said: “If you look at Luke’s career, because he’s had to work incredibly hard to keep progressing through it – even at Wycombe he was used in different roles and different styles and Wycombe play a very different way to us – and that shows he’s tactically adaptable It took him a little while to settle here because it’s very different to what he was used to at Wycombe.

“I never pigeon-holed him in any way, but the truth is his performances over 17 appearances at right-back means he plays there on merit. At the moment it’s his best position.”

While O’Nien has nailed down the right-back slot ahead of the trip to Wembley, Ross knows he has a headache over who to play in the middle of his defence.

Jack Baldwin retained his place at the expense of Jimmy Dunne against Walsall because Tom Flanagan was recalled immediately after his concussion prevented him from facing Barnsley last Tuesday. Sunderland also have Alim Ozturk and Glenn Loovens competing.

Ross said: “I’ve been pleased with how Jimmy (Dunne) has done. He’s been up and down at times. It was slightly hard on him because he was part of a good defensive performance at Barnsley but I just felt as if Saturday would be a very different game and it might be better suited to Jack (Baldwin) and Tom (Flanagan).

“Jack has had a difficult period and come back stronger from the time we’ve left him out. I think it just gives us options and we’re going to need them because the post-cup final schedule is demanding. It’s going to be a big ask for us as a club. To have little between players is problematic in some senses but hopefully helpful in others.”

Sunderland were never at their best against Walsall but did enough to seal the points and Ross’ substitutions played an important role.

As well as replacing Cattermole with Lynden Gooch just after the hour, he then decided to take off Adam Matthews and put on Denver Hume as well as put Charlie Wyke up front to partner Grigg.

It was the decision to carry out the latter that had the most pivotal effect. Wyke’s first touch was to basically control and lay the ball off for Grigg to carry the ball on and finish inside the bottom corner to win the game for Sunderland.

Ross said: “For every sub you get right you will get one wrong, some are enforced, I think Charlie has had a difficult period of late, this season, for a number of reasons. I am pleased for him he has had a big part in the goal that won it for us.”

Now Sunderland are sitting healthily in third place, and they will have three games in hand by the time they head to Accrington on April 2.

Ross said: “This weekend shows, looking back at Tuesday at Barnsley, the only time you can really get caught up in the positions is with two or three games to go.

“There are so many points still to play for and this weekend shows that. The important thing is we won because don’t play for a few weeks. It’s a happy changing room because we want to win that. We have a long unbeaten record back to December, and we are proud of that and want it to continue.