LEE JOHNSON has admitted Sunderland will struggle to hold on to many of their senior players if they fail to win promotion to the Championship this season.

Johnson has inherited a squad in which a number of senior players, including Lee Burge, Jordan Willis, Josh Scowen, Max Power, Chris Maguire, Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke, are due to reach the end of their contracts in the summer.

All seven of those players signed their current deals before the introduction of the salary cap, so their wages are recalibrated to a divisional average when Sunderland calculate their current salary-cap commitments.

However, if they were to sign a new deal, their wages would count as the full amount, meaning the Black Cats would find it all-but-impossible to match their existing terms if they were to remain in League One. Win promotion, however, and the Championship’s more flexible Financial Fair Play regulations would apply, enabling Sunderland to offer much higher salaries to members of their current squad.

“For anyone in our squad who is over the salary-cap type wage, their best chance of getting a really good contract at Sunderland is getting into the Championship,” said Johnson. “If they do that, then they can get a Championship-type contract. It’s as simple as that.

“What league we’re in next season changes everything. It’s an unbelievable change. In one sense, that’s a strength for us in the current climate because if we could be successful and we did end up realising that dream (of promotion), then it means we’ve got a really good slate to work from at that level.

“Obviously, in League One, if that was the case, then we would have to be very creative and make sure we nurture our own players. So, people like Dan Neil and Ollie Younger, who has come through, become really important, along with the loans you can get because the only spending power is with Under-21s.

“That’s the only way to flex your muscles, so if you stay in League One, you could end up with an Under-21 on x amount a week, and an experienced top-level player at 28 that you can’t pay any money to.”

With so much uncertainty, the Sunderland hierarchy will be understandably reluctant to enter into contract discussions until much later in the season, when the club’s promotion fate will become clearer.

For now, Johnson is hoping to tinker with his squad before the transfer window closes on February 1, although having brought in Carl Winchester from Forest Green last weekend, the scope for further alterations is extremely limited unless players leave.

“Any player, in any position, is going to take a form of succession planning,” said the Sunderland boss. “I think that’s the key to it. It’s not necessarily that we can’t do it now, but things might have to adjust.

“You’ve got to bring in the right quality. What you find is that it’s easy for everybody to throw out names, but they’ve got to be available, affordable, accessible and, in our situation at the moment, match fit. What happens is the pool gets vastly reduced.”

The situation is proving extremely fluid. Last week, Johnson was set to allow Dan Neil to leave on loan, but already the situation with regard to the youngster has shifted.

“It was a consideration to loan Dan out, because we really like him and it would be good to get him some fixtures,” said Johnson. “But we need to protect ourselves with a 28-day recall. We’re also now through in the cup (Papa John’s Trophy). It changes all the time.”