SPEAK to the 18 players involved in Sunderland’s play-off final defeat to Charlton Athletic, and they will all explain how painful it was to miss out on promotion by the narrowest of margins. The disappointment was etched on their faces as they trudged off the Wembley pitch, but at least they had been able to do something about it. Watching on from afar, Dylan McGeouch was forced to suffer on the sidelines in silence.

Hailed as one of Jack Ross’ key signings when he moved to Wearside after turning down the offer of a new contract at Hibernian last summer, McGeouch did not even make the matchday squad for Sunderland’s season-defining finale.

His individual struggles contributed to his club’s collective failings, so it was hardly a surprise to see the midfielder linked with a return to his Scottish homeland this summer. Aberdeen came calling, but McGeouch resisted the temptation to cut and run.

Instead, he was at the heart of midfield as Sunderland kicked off their latest attempt to get out of League One with a 1-1 draw with Oxford United last Saturday, with his composed display standing in marked contrast to the more ragged efforts of some of his colleagues. Ross remains confident he will prove a success at the Stadium of Light. Over the course of the next nine months, McGeouch simply wants to prove a point.

“I spoke to the manager in the summer, and I had it in my head that I know if I can get a good run of games, I can play down here,” said McGeouch, who had forced his way into the senior Scotland squad shortly before heading south last year. “I was determined to do so.

“That was my motivation - to come back and not be a bit-part player, make a claim to play regularly and get into the manager’s thoughts. That was my motivation over the summer, and I knew if I came back and worked hard, I could put myself in a position where I can be available.

“It was disappointing last season. I played a good amount of games considering I had a few injuries, but it was tough to keep training away and not be playing as much. I think every player feels like that when they’re training and not having something to look forward to at the weekend. It’s part of football.

“The manager can only pick 11 players to play, so you just have to take it and use it as motivation, which I tried to do over the summer to give me a determination to try and get back into his plans.”

Having been a big fish in a relatively small pond at Easter Road, McGeouch appeared to struggle to come to terms with life at Sunderland, where the weight of expectation and level of scrutiny is hardly commensurate with a team playing in the third tier.

He seems more settled now, more content with his lot, and admits he is finding it easier now he knows exactly what to expect from a League One campaign.

The relentless nature of the schedule came as a surprise last season, along with Sunderland’s status as the team that everybody else in the league wants to beat.

“I think I’ll be better prepared for the physicality of the league,” said McGeouch. “A lot of teams have good athletes and just being at the grounds and experiencing the travelling and the expectations, the demands on your body of Saturday-Tuesday games and stuff like that, will help.

“Back up the road, I was used to Saturday-Saturday games and every few weeks there’d be a midweek game. The schedule we had last year, especially with international breaks and stuff, meant we had a build-up and we were playing Tuesday or Wednesday every week, so it was kind of getting used to that. Now, we have to go again, and it’s about not taking your foot off the gas at times in training during the week. Personally, I think that’s the biggest thing I learnt.”

Having watched his side fail to win promotion last season, Ross has introduced some tactical changes in an attempt to improve things this time around.

The switch to three centre-halves should result in Sunderland’s central midfielders playing further up the field, and a desire to build more patiently through the lines should also play to McGeouch’s strengths.

The Scotsman is happy with the stylistic tweaks, but after some mutterings of dissent accompanied last weekend’s home draw, maintains it would be wrong to take anything for granted.

“We’d like to go out and win by three or four every week,” said McGeouch. “It’d be great, but Sunderland are a massive club in this league and teams aren’t just going to turn up and let you score as many as you want. You need to build play, have possession, put teams under pressure and keep them defending. Hopefully, then you take your chances.

“Possession, keeping the ball and letting boys express themselves going forward through the midfield, getting wide and getting into good positions - I think that’s going to be the key for us this year.”