GEORGE DOBSON has defended Jack Ross and claimed Sunderland’s under-performing players deserve to be criticised in the wake of Saturday’s horror-show at Lincoln City rather than the club’s under-fire manager.

Ross’ position as Black Cats boss has once again been called into question in the wake of last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Sincil Bank, a result that has left his side eight points adrift of league leaders Ipswich Town after the opening 11 games of the season.

With the international break likely to prove crucial to Stewart Donald’s attempts to sell his majority stake in Sunderland to the US-based MSD Partners Group, Ross’ future prospects are also likely to be clearer by the time the Wearsiders return to League One action at Wycombe Wanderers a week on Saturday.

In the meantime, the Black Cats kick off their Leasing.Com Trophy (formerly the Checkatrade Trophy) campaign at home to Grimsby Town tonight, and while Dobson accepts there is a need for a much-improved performance, he insists it is he and his team-mates who should be fending off flak rather than Ross.

“It falls on us as players,” said Dobson, who is set to return to the starting line-up for the first time in three matches this evening.  As players, you have to take responsibility for how you perform.

“The manager can only do so much in terms of picking the team and telling you how to play. After that, it’s up to the players on the pitch to perform in a certain way, and if we don’t turn up, then it’s obviously a very tough one for the manager. If the players don’t turn up for the game, there’s not a lot he can do about that.”

Sunderland’s players were a long way below their best at the weekend, with their performance eliciting an angry reaction from the travelling fans.

Ross conceded the display was “nowhere near good enough”, and in the wake of the two-goal defeat, a number of supporters took to social media to accuse the squad of ‘not caring’ about the result. It was also suggested they had ‘stopped playing’ for their embattled manager.

Dobson strongly refutes both accusations, insisting a heated post-match inquest highlights just how much playing for Sunderland means to each and every member of the squad. However, he accepts the need for a reaction tonight no matter how many new faces are on display.

“To say we don’t care is not right,” said the midfielder. “As players, we put so much into the way we train every day to try to get good performances. Sometimes, what we do isn’t good enough, but that’s why we’re working so hard in training every day, to try to make sure we get better and improve.

“It has got to get better, we know that. We can dwell on Saturday and reflect on it, but mostly we’ve just got to look forward now because it’s done, we can’t do anything about it anymore.”

Dobson’s last appearance in the starting line-up coincided with another performance that brought cries of derision from the Sunderland fans, the 1-1 draw at Bolton Wanderers.

In the two games after the trip to the University of Bolton Stadium, a reshuffled side looked to have turned a corner courtesy of a spirited Carabao Cup win at Sheffield United and a comfortable home success over MK Dons.

However, it was a case of going back to square one at the weekend, with an inability to sustain performance levels for more than two or three games at a time proving a major source of frustration.

“That’s the tough thing,” admitted Dobson. “You go from winning at a Premier League team and following that up with a good performance in the league to Saturday, all in the space of a week. It’s such fine margins in football.

“It’s hard, you’ve got to be good every week otherwise people aren’t happy. We’ve just got to make sure we’re consistent, that’s the key. Instead of having two or three good performances and then one where we’re not good enough, we need to try to get four, five, six on the bounce.”

Given the mounting pressure to perform in the league, the EFL Trophy could be regarded as something of an unwanted irrelevance.

Last season’s run to the final of the Checkatrade Trophy was something of a double-edged sword, setting up a memorable trip to Wembley but also contributing to a fixture pile-up that ultimately helped scupper hopes of securing automatic promotion.

Nevertheless, Dobson is looking forward to tonight’s game, which will provide an opportunity for a number of Sunderland’s younger performers to stake a claim for a more regular place in the side.

“The important thing for us is the league, but especially for players like me having not played the last couple, it's a chance for me to stake my claim to get back in and prove to the gaffer that I should be in the team,” he said.

“For the whole team, it’s a chance to put a positive performance in place going into the international break so that when the league is back up and running, we can mount a good run together.

“As a player you want to win silverware and realistically this is the competition we've got the best chance in.”

Sunderland (possible, 4-4-2): Burge; Mumba, Ozturk, Taylor, Hume; Gooch, Leadbitter, Dobson, Sammut; Watmore; Grigg.