BARRING a miracle, Sunderland head into the final four games of the season with their fate in the table already sealed. Nevertheless, with the play-offs beckoning, Grant Leadbitter regards the next four matches as a pivotal moment in determining the Black Cats’ fate.

Tuesday’s 2-2 draw at Hull means Sunderland are seven points adrift of second-placed Peterborough United and 11 points behind the table-topping Tigers, albeit with a game in hand on the latter. Even if they win all of their remaining matches, Hull will only need one win from three and Peterborough two wins from four to finish ahead of them.

For the second time in the last three seasons, Sunderland will almost certainly find themselves in the play-offs, and as a veteran of the end-of-season shootouts, Leadbitter knows just how important it is that they head into the semi-finals in the right frame of mind.

In the 2014-15 season, Leadbitter was a member of the Middlesbrough side that lost to Norwich in the Championship play-off final. Having been competing in the battle for automatic promotion for most of the season, Boro won just two of their final six matches as they missed out. In hindsight, perhaps their stuttering end-of-season form was a factor in their Wembley defeat.

In 2018-19, Leadbitter lined up for Sunderland in the play-off final as they lost to Charlton. In that season, the Black Cats won just one of their final five matches in the league campaign, a run that perhaps sowed some of the doubts that crept in as Jack Ross’ side threw away an early lead at Wembley against the Addicks.

This time around, Sunderland sign off with matches against Accrington, Blackpool, Plymouth and Northampton. On paper, they might not have a lot to play for. Leadbitter, however, does not see it that way.

“We have to go into the last four games to win,” said the 35-year-old midfielder. “But our performances have got to be on par so, if it is the play-offs, we go into it playing well.

“We can’t go into it not playing well - we need to go in with confidence, playing well and the way we want to attack. I’m experienced enough now to know what we need to do. We need to stay calm, because I know what it takes.”

Leadbitter’s experience could well prove an extremely valuable asset if, as looks likely, Lee Johnson finds himself picking a side for a two-legged play-off semi-final next month.

The boyhood Black Cats fan did not start the recent defeats to Charlton and Wigan, but it was surely telling that he was back in the side against Blackpool and Hull.

“I’ve been pretty pleased with my last few performances, I really have,” said Leadbitter. “I know what I bring to the table, so we just have to keep performing as a team and I believe the wins will flow

"I love this time of the season. I think I’m a calm person – let’s not beat around the bush, I’m nearly 36-years-old. But I’m confident in myself and confident in this type of season, so we move on.”