PHIL PARKINSON has urged his Sunderland players to ignore any outside distractions caused by Joey Barton’s appearance on Wearside when they host promotion rivals Fleetwood Town tonight.

The Black Cats will climb into the automatic-promotion positions if they win and second-placed Coventry City slip up against league leaders Rotherham United, and as if the stakes were not high enough anyway, this evening’s game will have an added edge thanks to Barton’s presence in the opposition dug-out.

The former Newcastle United midfielder aimed a succession of barbs at Sunderland during his time on Tyneside, and courted controversy again when he made a ‘5-1’ gesture, referencing his involvement in the Magpies’ Tyne-Wear derby win by that scoreline, during an appearance for QPR against the Wearsiders.

The Fleetwood boss raised tensions again ahead of last season’s game with the Black Cats when he claimed it would be “pleasing to send them (Sunderland supporters) away with tears in their eyes”, but while there is bound to be a lively atmosphere in the Stadium of Light stands tonight, Parkinson does not want any simmering tensions to affect his players on the pitch.

“There’s an ex-Newcastle player managing the opposition, so there’s always going to be a bit of feeling around that,” said the Sunderland boss. “But it’s about what happens on the pitch. I don’t want to get involved in anything else, and I don’t want my players too either.

“The message is to not allow anything to distract us from the job in hand. I think that’s key. We had a bit of a similar situation down at Portsmouth, where I just felt we lost our focus a bit. The refereeing performance was an issue, we could have had a couple of penalties, and there were loads of things where me and Steve (Parkin) were going mad on the touchline. At the end, I said, ‘I just think we got a bit distracted there when we shouldn’t have’.

“You’ve got to learn that games get a little bit more edgy as the season progresses and you have to handle that. Throw in external things like this (Barton) and we’ve just got to make sure that we concentrate on what we’ve got to do. I think we did that at the weekend (against Bristol Rovers), and we’ve got to do it again.”

A number of Sunderland players have displayed a hot-headed streak in the past, and Parkinson has held a series of one-on-one sessions to ensure the right level of focus is maintained as the promotion race hurtles towards its climax.

He has worked especially closely with Chris Maguire, who ha responded with a series of impressive attacking displays culminating in Saturday’s performance when he helped set up all three of Sunderland’s goals.

“You learn how to handle certain players,” he said. “Chris Maguire is one we chatted with recently about that. Sometimes, he can get frustrated with the referees or things that are going on, and we said, ‘We just feel that might take a little edge away from your performance. You just do what you’re good at, which is playing football, and we’ll deal with the referees or anything else that is happening’. Experience of being a manager helps you, but you also build up a knowledge of your players as the season goes on.”

Parkinson is set to name an unchanged starting side tonight, with all of his squad having come through Saturday’s 3-0 success unscathed.

Joel Lynch could return to the squad for the first time in five matches after recovering from a calf problem, but he is unlikely to dislodge Alim Ozturk from the starting line-up with the Turkish centre-half having performed impressively at the weekend.

“Alim was excellent,” said Parkinson. “We expected that from him because he was doing well before he got left out of the team. Now, he has to keep it going.”

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