WITH an eight-point gap to make up to leaders Rotherham United and a five point deficit to chalk off to second-placed Wycombe, midfielder George Dobson has warned Sunderland’s promotion rivals that an automatic return to the Championship is on the cards.

The Black Cats did their chances no harm at all courtesy of a hard-earned but deserved 1-0 victory over another side with an eye on a return to the Championship, Ipswich Town, on Saturday.

That was sealed by a terrific strike from Chris Maguire with nine minutes remaining and it was enough to lift Sunderland back into the play-off zone at the Tractor Boys’ expense.

Sunderland now have to stay there and keep picking up the points to nick an automatic return to the second tier, having learned the hard way about losing in the play-offs at Wembley to Charlton last May.

That was before Dobson had arrived from Walsall, but he still firmly believes that finishing in the top two is within Sunderland’s capabilities if they can keep delivering the sort of second half performance against Ipswich that will regularly earn them three points.

“One hundred per cent, the top two is the aim, it has to be,” said Dobson. “If you look at the table it’s like a point difference between everyone; the gap is so small.

“Promotion will go to whoever can just sustain their run on a consistent basis. There’s such a long way to go as well. We’ve still got 15 games to play so there’s a lot of points to play for. We’ve just got to take each game as it comes.

“We all know it’s tight and all the teams at the top are going to want to win games and this was a big one for us. We can only focus on ourselves. If we can win as many games as we can we won’t be far away will we? We’re in a good place and we’ve just got to keep going.”

As the table sits now Sunderland are only scheduled to play one of the League One top six between now and April 13. When Phil Parkinson’s men travel to Coventry on March 1, that is the only game in 11 matches that will be against a side currently occupying a play-off place.

There are sides like Oxford and Fleetwood who have designs on breaking back into that group of clubs, but clearly Sunderland know they have a decent run of fixtures to chase down Wycombe and Rotherham starting against Rochdale tomorrow night.

"The Portsmouth game was a disappointing way to start the month, but we looked at it and can see that it is a real chance for us to stamp our mark and keep climbing the table,” said Dobson.

“We can only focus on ourselves and putting performances in to win games. Saturday was a good start to hopefully get us back on a long run.

"We're in a good place ahead of another big week. We'll recover now ahead of Tuesday which will be another tough test.  “When we played Rochdale earlier in the season they played some lovely football. It will be a tough game, but another we have to look to get another three points from.”

Dobson has gone from being in and out of the side earlier in the season under Jack Ross to being a regular in the centre of the pitch under Parkinson. The chances are that, given the way he plays, he will be facing a third suspension of the season again soon.

Dobson is on nine yellow cards and a tenth will mean a two-match ban. There are still eight more league games to play before the cut-off for the ten booking rule to be overlooked, but he is determined not to change his style as he helps Sunderland rise up the table.

"That's football. To be fair, the last couple of bookings have been cheap, but the way I play I'm always going to pick up bookings so I don't really think about it. It's just taking each game as it comes and focusing on my individual performances,” said Dobson.

"There's a lot of games still to play, and with a couple of Tuesday games to come, it could only be a week that I'm missing so you just can't think about it.  "I just try to focus on my game and trying to help the team get the win."

Dobson, who has also been sent off this season, has been influential in the middle of the pitch and has started to live up to a burgeoning reputation that he had created during his time at Walsall.  The 22-year-old had scouts attending Walsall games regularly to monitor his progress and it was Sunderland who took the plunge and he is enjoying life at the Stadium of Light – and would love to cap his first season on Wearside with a promotion party.

"It's been a tough journey for me coming from Walsall to Sunderland in the space of a season,” he said.  “The gaffer has put a lot of faith in me and I'm playing a lot of games so I'm just absolutely loving it.  “To play for a club of this size, with a fanbase like we have - what was it, 32-000 again today? - I'm loving it. Going from playing in front of 4,000 to 32,000 that's a massive jump, but that's why you want to play football - to play in front of crowds like these.  "Hopefully I can keep myself in the team for as long as possible and keep helping the team move forward. But I know I need to keep getting better and improving and I know I can do that.  “There's a lot of competition for places now. You can see with the players we've brought in, the squad is massive.  "Just look at the players missing out on the squad on match days. Quality players.

"For me to be keeping myself in the team is something I'm proud of, but it makes you want more. Hopefully I can play as much as possible until the end of the season.”

Dobson had been tried in different roles under Ross, even as a No 10, but he has flourished alongside Max Power in the middle and they have struck up an understanding to help Sunderland develop.

"I prefer personally playing in a two-man midfield and I've obviously played with Max most of the time and I feel we complement each other well,” he said. "It's good that we can help the team go on an important run. Defensively, we are keeping more clean sheets, so it's something the whole team is happy with.”

To have played a part in a performance that got Sunderland back to winning ways against Ipswich has given everyone a lift at the right time.

Dobson said: "Portsmouth was a disappointment after we were on a very good run, going nine unbeaten. It's how you react to set-backs though, and I thought, especially second half, we played some really good stuff and deserved the victory.

"I wouldn't say it was that bad (the first half). They just come out 100 miles an hour and I think you could see that they blew up in the second half, whereas we then stepped up another gear."