IT’S back to the Stadium of Light again for Sunderland again and if things go according to plan within the next few weeks then an automatic promotion place should be on the cards.

Given the dramas, the twists and the turns encountered on Wearside in recent years, it is a safe assumption that nobody will be taking such a scenario for granted.

But Phil Parkinson has got Sunderland looking every bit the title contender in League One.

One defeat in 13 matches is promotion form in anyone’s book, particularly when that has included eight victories and the latest of those was in tough conditions and Oxford United, another side with Championship aspirations.

Parkinson came under heavy fire around Christmas time for failing to oversee a transformation, with Sunderland looking like they had got worse rather than better following the sacking of Jack Ross.

His reputation for negative football would have been accepted had it accompanied positive results during that initial slump under his watch. What has happened since, though, is that Sunderland have shown both sides to their game.

Parkinson has always maintained there is an unfair perception of his style of play, believing he tries to find a winning formula with the players he has at his disposal. Given how things have turned around, it would seem time was all he needed to oversee better results in the third tier.

Clearly the job needs to be finished off, but Parkinson’s decision to find consistency in his team selection has clearly brought with it rewards. Even though injury has forced an occasional switch in personnel, Sunderland have developed a knack for grinding out results with an evolving team spirit.

Even though Bailey Wright was forced off through injury at Oxford and Alim Ozturk was recalled from the bench, Sunderland still managed to record a seventh clean sheet from eight matches.

That is staggering statistic made all the more impressive by the fact that Sunderland have scored in six of those matches to climb up from the bottom half of the table and to within touching distance of the top two.

At this rate the three point deficit they have to Coventry and Rotherham United could be erased by the time the Black Cats head to St Andrew’s to face the Sky Blues on March 1 in what is shaping up to be a huge battle in the race for the title.

Before that Sunderland have two home dates with Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town and if Parkinson can maintain the seven-match unbeaten run, six of which have been victories, then they could well head to the Midlands as occupants of one of those two coveted spots.

Parkinson seems to be able to throw a different face in to the side and it doesn’t make too much different right now, and that is what he will hope for when he has to replace Wright this week.

The on loan Bristol City defender has been excellent in his first few appearances but the signs are not good for him ahead of the next two home dates, and his ankle ligament damage could stretch to him missing many more that two games.

Ozturk, who many felt was unfairly left out on January 29 at Tranmere anyway after a decent run of good form, looks likely to be his replacement, although Joel Lynch should have recovered from a rib problem before this weekend too.

And regardless of who starts, Sunderland defender Jordan Willis believes it will be a seamless switch because the defensive record is a credit to the whole squad.

Willis said: “No matter who is playing, we know how each other players and we've built good bonds with each other.

“You're still getting the same result out of us no matter who is playing. It's credit to everyone, especially the lads who didn't start.

“It's not easy to come on in a game like that and they've slotted straight in and performed very well. Everyone has got to play their part.”

Josh Scowen was the other non-forward introduced at Oxford and he helped see out the remaining half an hour, with Parkinson admitting beforehand that the former QPR midfielder has had to bide his time because of the team’s form.

And then there is Kyle Lafferty and Antoine Semenyo having to wait in the wings in attack because of the excellent understanding that Chris Maguire, Lynden Gooch and Charlie Wyke have struck up to lead the charge back to the Championship.

Sunderland’s promotion battle may be far from over, but at least they have given themselves every chance of achieving something that had not looked on the cards before Christmas.