LESS than three months of the League One season to go, and as the going has started to get tough, so the tough have started to get going.

Sunderland host Rochdale this evening having lost just one of their last 11 matches. Portsmouth, the only team to have beaten them in that sequence, travel to Coventry City looking to extend a run of nine successive victories in all competitions. Rotherham United, with a three-point cushion at the top of the table, have won eight of their last nine league games. Peterborough United, after a mid-season wobble, have won five on the spin.

The cream is rising to the top, and with just two automatic promotion spots available, the next 12 weeks will witness a frantic battle for a place in the Championship.

Sunderland look to be peaking at just the right time, but if their rivals keep on winning, Phil Parkinson’s side will have very little wriggle room given they currently trail the top two by five points.

The pressure could hardly be higher, but as Parkinson and his long-term assistant, Steve Parkin, reflect on the ongoing promotion race, they can take solace from the fact that they have been through something similar and emerged triumphant.

Back in the 2016-17 season, the pair were in charge of a Bolton Wanderers side that put together a superb sequence of results in the spring, only for their rivals at the top of League One to match them. As one team won, so did the others. But when the action stopped in May, the Trotters were able to celebrate automatic promotion, with a four-point cushion to the side directly below them, Scunthorpe United.

“The best teams and the best players go up a level at this time of year, and that’s what’s happening again in this division,” said Parkin. “We’re seeing it at the moment.

“It’s a very similar situation to one we had when we were at Bolton, and it’s good that you have those experiences to fall back on. When we were at Bolton, in the season we got promoted, we hit this tremendous run of form, as did Sheffield United. But as we were winning all our games, so were Fleetwood Town and Scunthorpe.

“You were winning games, but every time you looked at the results, so were they. It literally went to the last game, and it wouldn’t surprise you at all if a similar thing was to happen here.”

At the turn of the year, it looked as though Sunderland’s hopes of a top-two finish had gone, but an excellent January, which saw the Black Cats claim 14 points from a possible 18, thrust them back into the heart of the promotion-chasing pack.

This month’s 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth was a blip, but the effects did not last long, with last weekend’s 1-0 win over Ipswich ensuring a rapid return to winning ways.

“We’re on a great run,” said Parkin. “We’ve only lost one game in 11, and some of the performances have been very good. I think we were a bit hard done by in the first half at Portsmouth with a few little things, so the run could even have kept going there.

“The key thing for us in the wake of that Portsmouth game was the lads had to dust themselves down and pick themselves up to play against another good team in Ipswich, and they did that well.”

Parkin managed Rochdale for three years between 2003-06, and while his former club are languishing in the bottom half of the table, he will be taking nothing for granted ahead of tonight’s game.

“Even when I was there a long time ago, Rochdale has always prided itself on developing good, young players, and you’re seeing that again this season,” he said. “They’ve managed to do that over the last ten years, and they’ve got talented footballers who like to play in a certain way.

“All the tapes we’ve looked at, and all the homework we’ve done, suggests they’re a team who like to get the ball down and try to play. They’ve got technical players all over the pitch, and also have a threat in behind at the top of the pitch that it’s important we see off.”

Sunderland (3-4-2-1): J McLaughlin; Willis, Wright, Flanagan; O’Nien, Power, Dobson, Hume; Gooch, Maguire; Wyke.