ONE a major reason why Sunderland have managed to climb back into the automatic promotion mix, according to manager Phil Parkinson, it is that his players have realised they need to set higher standards – on the pitch and in training.

That is something Parkinson feels he has been able to introduce since taking over from Jack Ross in early November, when it looked like a top two spot was starting to slide away from the Black Cats.

In fact, after Ross’ departure, Sunderland slipped further behind, eventually dropping down to 15th after a Boxing Day draw at home to Bolton. Since then, though, the penny has dropped, the mood improved and suddenly a return to the Championship looks a realistic goal once again.

But for promotion to be achieved this season, Parkinson knows standards cannot drop. Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Rochdale extended an impressive run to just one defeat in 12 games going in to today’s contest with promotion contenders Oxford United.

“People talk about Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire, but look at George Dobson and Max Power as well,” said Parkinson. “Josh Scowen has come in who is a very good player. He will be disappointed not to go straight in the team but since he arrived those two have gone up a level.

“It’s frustrating for Josh, that’s what competition is about. Ethan Robson and Josh are chomping for those roles. The two lads in there already have to keep up their levels.

“The lads who aren’t in the team, you are judged as a person when you are not in the team. Not just the new lads but the ones like Duncan Watmore for instance, not been in for a while. He has been excellent.

“In two weeks’ time they might be in the team and they will be needed. It is a case of them having to train hard and show me and others that standards are set. You don’t want players to be moping around you want them on top of their levels even when they are not in the team. I believe that.

“It helps to have a settled side. We have a settled way of playing, we have to make sure that when players come in it is seamless. We don’t want to lose our momentum because we have good players to come in.”

While Parkinson highlighted the midfield and attacking areas, he could easily have pointed to the backline too. Despite changing the personnel in the back three, Sunderland have still kept six clean sheets in their last seven games to climb to within four points of second spot.

It is a far cry from that pre-Christmas slump which led to fans calling for Parkinson to go.

“We’re in the mix now,” said Parkinson. “When you look at it, teams have fluctuated. Like Ipswich, they had an incredible start and dropped off. Peterborough are now on a fantastic run. It’s all about who can sustain those good runs the longest.

“We’re on a decent one ourselves and we’ve got to concentrate on sustaining that. There’s a lot of teams below the play-off line still thinking ‘we’ve got a real chance of getting in’, so it’s really competitive, which is great. Every game has got something on it and there are some decent sides.”

Parkinson has had a lot of success in League One with Bolton, Bradford and Colchester. Has it changed? He said: “This year is competitive. There’s a lot of decent sides.

“And like I’ve said since coming here, you’ve got no given right to win games or to get promoted. You’ve got to earn it every step of the way.

“You’ve got to have a strong mentality within the club to get promotion. I don’t think it’s got harder. Even when I was a player I remember the qualities required to get promotion were resilience, toughness, keeping going, people playing with injuries, just getting on with things and rolling the sleeves up and just pushing yourselves each and every game. There is no let-up.

“You come off the pitch and the top teams around you have won. You’ve got to expect teams around you are going to win in the main. Then someone might slip up, but all you could do is concentrate on yourself and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Just last week Oxford faced Newcastle in the FA Cup and were unlucky to lose in extra-time. Sunderland have had a look at that tie and Parkinson thinks there will be similarities.

“I think the atmosphere will not be too dissimilar. We’ll take a good following, and I think both clubs will realise it’s a big game,” he said.

“If you watched the game I think Oxford at times played some great stuff, but equally Newcastle looked as though they could score against them, and obviously did.

“They’re a good team and they’ve done well. You go back to when Michael Appleton was at Oxford quite a few years ago they did a similar thing where they bought some good young players and developed them. Karl Robinson’s done well too.”