PHIL PARKINSON claims a “tenfold improvement” in Sunderland’s work ethic has been a key factor in the club’s climb up the table and resulted in him being named League One Manger of the Month for January.

Parkinson’s first managerial honour as Sunderland boss reflects his side excellent form last month, with the Black Cats having claimed four wins and two draws from their six January matches as they hauled themselves back into the play-off places prior to last weekend’s defeat at Portsmouth.

The former Bolton and Bradford boss has overseen a number of changes since being appointed as Jack Ross’ successor in mid-October, switching to a five-man defence, axing Aiden McGeady and moving away from the midfield rotation that was so beloved of his predecessor.

However, he feels his most important move was a change to the club’s training programme and an increased emphasis on fitness levels and professionalism, aspects he clearly feels were not at an acceptable level prior to his appointment.

“There have been some tough decisions that have had to be made along the way,” said Parkinson, whose side host promotion rivals Ipswich Town tomorrow afternoon. “But I felt that once we got the dressing room right, and the work ethic started to increase on the training pitch, I could see signs of things turning. 

“I always knew we had good players. But, when I first came, I just felt with Sunderland, we should win, we should beat this team and that team. So why weren’t we? There were certain elements in our play, and in our preparation, which weren’t as good as other clubs, and we had to make sure they were right. 

“I feel we’re getting there, and we are getting a lot better. The work ethic during the week, and the general professionalism, has gone up tenfold.

“A lot of hard work has gone into the month from myself, the staff and the players. Everyone who works at the training ground has played their part, and I include the supporters in all of that too because the backing they’ve given the team, home and away, has been terrific.

“Success in football, and awards, comes from a team work ethic, and that’s not just the team on the pitch, it’s all around. I feel as though we’ve had that, and now we’re ready to push on again.”

Last week’s setback at Fratton Park means Sunderland head into tomorrow’s meeting with Ipswich in seventh position, but they remain just eight points adrift of league leaders Rotherham United with a game in hand, and just five points away from the automatic promotion positions, again with a game in hand on second-placed Wycombe Wanderers.

They are entering a crucial stage of the season, with a trip to another of their promotion rivals, Oxford United, following this week’s back-to-back home games against Ipswich and Rochdale.

“The recent run means we’ve got ourselves back into the pack,” said Parkinson. “We’ve got ourselves into a position where we can challenge, and that’s where we wanted to be. Now, it’s time to take a deep breath, which we’ve been able to do this week with a free week, assess everything and get ready for the challenge which lies ahead, because it’s an exciting one.

“To get to where we want to be, it’s going to take an almighty effort. Promotions and victories aren’t handed to you on a plate, you’ve got to really earn them. We’ve got to make sure that come the summer, when we look back, we can all say we gave absolutely everything to achieve promotion.”

Receiving January’s Manager of the Month award is a stark contrast to the situation Parkinson found himself in at the end of December, when his position appeared to be hanging by a thread as thousands of Sunderland supporters chanted for Kevin Phillips’ appointment during the Boxing Day draw with Bolton Wanderers.

“I’ve said many times that you have to have a thick skin as a manager,” said the Black Cats boss. “It’s an absolute must because when you don’t get results, you’re going to get criticised. It’s also important to have good people working for you, and a clear direction of where you want to get to. That’s what I believe I’ve got, and the staff around me have also got that too.”