HE might not have played south of the border before, but James Fowler had a perception of Sunderland as a relatively big club. His move to Wearside, as Jack Ross’ assistant, has taken that view to a different level.

Fowler, during his 17 years with Kilmarnock as a player, got to experience what it was like to come up against the Old Firm, when Celtic and Rangers would take thousands with them around Scotland for league dates.

That is the only thing he can truly compare his first season to Sunderland with, having been stunned by the sheer number of supporters who have followed the Black Cats around in League One.

Even at home, despite playing in the third tier of English football, there have been around 30,000 regularly attending Stadium of Light games, sometimes more.

Fowler said: “We always say to people we speak to in Scotland, you know it’s a big club, you see it’s a big club on the TV but until you’re in the building and you see the training ground and the home fans coming to games and the travelling involved in away games, it’s huge. Hopefully if we can bring success the numbers will increase.

“I didn’t really give much thought to what games would be like, not really. You’re in League One and there are some other big teams in this league but none as big as Sunderland.

“It’s an eye-opener to come here and see the passion and the desire of the fans and the expectation to get success. That’s something that if you want to be at a big club, you have to deal with it.”

To have such big numbers piling through the gates to watch matches home and away, on a weekly basis, is something new to Fowler, a graduate of the Kilmarnock ranks whose career ended at Stirling after a couple of stints at Cowdenbeath and Queen of the South.

“Huge attendances, especially when times are tough, those numbers are brilliant,” said Fowler, who had a two-year spell managing Queen of the South before joining Jack Ross at St Mirren.

“It’s easy to come and watch us play Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal, all the big teams, but the test for the fans is when you’re having to spend your hard-earned money travelling home and away to support teams in League One. It’s a credit to them for doing that.”

He is convinced under Ross, whose side have climbed into an automatic promotion spot ahead of today’s meeting with Coventry on Wearside, Sunderland can continue to shine because both of them are really enjoying it.

Fowler, 38, said: “I worked with the manager at St Mirren so I knew what he was going to bring to the club and it was a no-brainer for me as well. We loved our time at St Mirren, it was great, but when a club the size of Sunderland come calling I was over the moon to be asked to come.

“The only other thing was relocating family because we’ve both got young kids but from a selfish football and job point of view I wanted to go and do it.

“I’m probably still a wee bit blown away by midweek games when you see the fans travelling and the distances and cost involved. When we’re travelling away from Rochdale and you see a bus broken down you think it’s incredible. Hopefully in the remaining games, especially the home ones, we can get a push off them.”

Now having edged ahead of Barnsley and up to second, Fowler accepts that Sunderland – who still have a game in hand – can’t let that slip because they want the extra time to plan for a first season in the Championship.

“Promotion is the perfect finish to the season,” said Fowler. “I know people in the past have liked the day out at Wembley and going up that way but give me a top-two finish any day of the week. That means you can prepare better for next season as well.”