SUNDERLAND skipper Max Power admits it is “now or never” if he and his team-mates are to mount a successful promotion push in the final three months of the season.

The Black Cats’ faltering attempts to haul themselves out of League One suffered another setback as they lost 2-1 at Shrewsbury Town on Tuesday, with the defeat leaving them two points adrift of the play-off positions and eight points behind the automatic-promotion slots.

Three of the teams in the current top ten have at least one game in hand on the Wearsiders, who have failed to win four of their last six league matches, and Power accepts his side’s record since the turn of the year is not that of a side looking to win promotion.

An immediate improvement is necessary with fifth-placed Doncaster Rovers visiting the Stadium of Light at the weekend, and while there are still 20 games to play, Sunderland are approaching the point where another couple of slip-ups could inflict terminal damage to their promotion hopes.

“You can shy away from it, or you can analyse it, look in the mirror and decide where you want to go from here,” said Power, who has found himself lining up at right-back under Lee Johnson. “There’s plenty of football left, but we can’t keep passing up opportunities and we can’t keep talking about how many games are left.

“For me, it’s a bit of now or never, the season is on a hinge where it can go one of two ways. You find out a lot about people and character when things like this arise.

“It’s nice being a footballer when it’s going well and you're getting pats on the back, so we’ll see, it’s a big game Saturday against a team in form and for me that’s a good game to go in to off the back of this (the Shrewsbury defeat). I’d like to think once the dust settles, people are going to be ready to go.”

The most disappointing aspect of Tuesday’s defeat was the way in which Sunderland established a position of strength through Aiden O’Brien’s first-half opener, only to throw it away as they conceded two goals after the interval.

The first was the result of a self-inflicted mistake, with goalkeeper Remi Matthews leaving himself stranded as he failed to collect Donald Love’s cross, and while Harry Chapman claimed Shrewsbury’s winner with a well-struck volley, further evidence of the Black Cats’ increasingly soft underbelly was a worrying sign.

“Anyone who knows me knows I’m a really positive person, but I can't stand here and put any positive spin on that,” admitted Power. “There's no positives, we lost the game. One-nil up, away from home, there were times earlier when even when we weren't at it, you'd back us to keep a clean sheet.

“Start of the second half, we're not going to dig anyone out, but it's an error which gives them a leg up. The second goal is then avoidable and we can't shy away from the fact that we were second best. We were punished for that and lost the game.”

Even without any fans to spur them on, it was clear from the scale of their post-match celebrations that Shrewsbury’s players regarded beating Sunderland as a major scalp. The Black Cats have had to contend with being a ‘big fish in a small pond’ ever since they dropped into League One, but are showing worryingly few signs of being able to come to terms with the added pressure.

“We saw there at the end how much it means to Shrewsbury,” agreed Power. “We know we're a scalp and so we know every time we play, we've got to bring our best. If you're not ready, not at it, you'll get put on your back.”