SUNDERLAND return to action at the Stadium of Light this afternoon with Phil Parkinson confident that he now has a squad capable of nailing down a top two spot – and staying there.

But he does not want his players to take anything for granted in a League One he feels is more than capable of making teams pay for slip-ups.

The Black Cats are still three points shy of the automatic promotion places but one defeat in the last 13 matches has given everyone hope that a return to the Championship can finally be delivered come May.

Parkinson accepts that, after the tinkering he did in the January window, his squad is ready to finish off the job – provided his players retain the levels of focus and determination that they have displayed to get them back in the mix.

He said: “We have to be careful we don’t pat ourselves on the back too much because we are in a good position.

“There is still work to be done and the minute we start to think we have cracked it is the moment when teams will start to go past us.

“The potential is there, the core group of good lads is there to do well. That’s great on the training pitch and on match days.

“Basically, it’s standards, that’s what we have to maintain. It’s not allowing any sloppiness to creep in, even if it is a small sided game it has to be done properly.

“People have got to stay with runners, pass the ball properly, make angles. All of those principles are in place and myself, Steve Parkin and Andy Taylor discuss it before training, matches, and we make sure we are on it.

Parkinson added: “Gradually over a period of time you get the leadership in the group who manage that, self-manage. We have started to get that now and we didn’t before. Max Power, George Dobson, Luke O’Nien, Jordan Willis … to name just a few. They are driving that on, on a day to day basis.”

One factor that could come into play between now and the end of the season is how players are feeling when contracts are running down.

Sunderland have a large number of first team squad members whose existing deals are set to expire in the summer and there is no rush to get things tied up. That could frustrate them, but Parkinson hopes it will go the other way.

“Everybody is driving towards being successful because we will all reap the benefits of that,” he said. “Some are under contract, some are out of contract. The owner Stewart Donald and head of football operations Richard Hill deal with the contracts. I tell them my opinion from a football perspective and they deal with them.”

But Parkinson himself has enjoyed something of a turnaround at the Stadium of Light, where supporters called for him to be sacked during the goalless draw with Bolton there on Boxing Day.

Since then he has overseen an incredible turnaround, climbing up from 15th and to within touching distance of the top two going into Saturday’s visit of Bristol Rovers. A section of fans even chanted his name in a positive manner at Oxford last weekend.

“I was pleased with that,” he said. “The fans love the club so much and they can see clearly what is going on. They have a team of players giving everything and they know the staff are the same. We are enjoying that and we want that to continue home and away.

“The last few games at home have been a difficult place for teams to come and we have to make it hard for the opposition. We want them to come to our place where fans are up for every decision from their seat, wanting more and that is really coming.”