LEE JOHNSON insists he and his Sunderland players cannot afford to become fixated on getting one over on Joey Barton as they look to keep the club’s promotion push on track at Bristol Rovers this afternoon.

Barton has become something of a pantomime villain in the eyes of Sunderland supporters in recent years, thanks both to his history as a player with Newcastle United and his constant sniping at the Black Cats during his time as a manager.

However, when it comes to taking on Sunderland from the dug-out, the former England international has invariably had the last laugh, with his six matches against the Wearsiders while managing Fleetwood Town resulting in two wins and four draws.

Barton, who took charge of struggling Bristol Rovers a month ago, will attempt to extend his unbeaten run against Sunderland this afternoon, but while the former Newcastle midfielder has aimed some more barbs in the Black Cats’ direction during the build-up to today’s game, Johnson maintains any touchline drama is merely a sideshow to the main event.

“It’s another one of these Sunderland hoodoos, so I suppose it’s another one we have to try to banish,” said Johnson, who will lead his side into the automatic-promotion positions if they win this afternoon and second-placed Peterborough United fail to beat Accrington Stanley. “It’s external noise to me. It’s something I can’t control.

“What can I do about Joey Barton’s record against Sunderland? What I can do is make sure my boys are ready physically and mentally so they know what’s coming in terms of the opposition’s threats and strengths, but also they go into the game knowing we’ve got full trust and belief in them as individuals.”

Barton’s obsession with outfoxing Sunderland stems from his time at St James’ Park, when he was a member of the Newcastle side that thrashed the Black Cats 5-1 in a derby those of a red-and-white persuasion would like to forget.

He seemed to revel in aiming sly digs in Sunderland’s direction during his time at Fleetwood – “how can a club the size of Sunderland be happy with a point against little old us” was a constant theme he enjoyed returning to – and he adopted a similar theme when discussing today’s game with the press yesterday.

Johnson was much more placatory with own comments, claiming Barton is a good fit as Bristol Rovers look to haul themselves out of the relegation positions, having dropped into the bottom four as they lost to Swindon on Tuesday.

“Joey has gone to Bristol Rovers, and I think he’s been brave,” he said. “It’s a good club, Bristol Rovers, obviously I know a lot about it from being in and around the area for so long. They’re fighting for their lives, and there’s no better person to have at the helm in that situation because Joey has been a winner all of his career.”

Johnson spent more than a decade on the red half of Bristol, first as a player and then as a manager at Ashton Gate.

Had supporters been present this afternoon, he might have been afforded something of a rough ride from the Bristol Rovers faithful, but despite his strong City links, he has nothing but respect for the club on the other side of the Bristolian divide.

“It’s a passionate football city,” he said. “It’s a great city, with two very passionate teams. Obviously, I was on the red side of the city for probably over ten years as player and manager, and naturally you build up those rivalries.

“I might have had a bit of a tasty reaction (if there had been fans at the game), but I think generally, and certainly from my end, there’s a lot of respect. There’s people at Bristol Rovers that I know very well that work in the backroom, and they’re great people. I think the owner is a fantastic man as well.

“While you’re in the city, of course there’s that intensity, just as there would be with Sunderland-Newcastle. But at the same time, there’s also a mutual respect, and that’s certainly the case from my side.”