WITH four games of the season to go, Lee Johnson’s priority remains guiding Sunderland to automatic promotion. If, as looks likely, a top-two finish proves out of reach though, the Black Cats head coach concedes there will come a time when his team selection might have to start reflecting the need to start focusing on the play-offs.

Accrington Stanley are the visitors to the Stadium of Light this afternoon, with Sunderland starting the day seven points adrift of second-placed Peterborough United. The Wearsiders are 11 points behind league leaders Hull City, albeit with a game in hand.

Understandably, Johnson is not about to start giving up on automatic promotion, with Peterborough’s run-in providing some cause for optimism. Having lost at home to Gillingham in midweek, Posh head to sixth-placed Charlton today before completing the campaign with two games against Doncaster and a match against fourth-placed Lincoln.

The smart money, however, is on Sunderland finishing in third position at best, and while Johnson will select a full-strength line-up for Tuesday’s home game with Blackpool, he admits that if a top-two finish is impossible by next weekend, he will consider resting some of his key players for the final two games against Plymouth and Northampton.

“I think it’s a consideration,” he said. “It’s something we might look at towards that Plymouth game I suppose, depending on whether automatic-promotion places are still possible or not. There’s got to be a consideration then about a, your league position, b, who the potential opponents are if we’re in the play-offs and c, whether we need to rest anybody, key players or all players to get them sharp.

“Then, you’ve also got the consideration of fair play to the competition as well. There’s a lot of thought processes that will have to go into that if we get to that, but at the moment, it’s one game at a time and do our very best to beat Accrington.”

If it is to be the play-offs, Johnson and his players will have to deal with the weight of Sunderland’s less-than-glorious history in the end-of-season shootout.

From Michael Gray’s penalty miss against Charlton in 1998 to the heartbreak of last-gasp defeat against the same opposition at Wembley two years ago, the Black Cats have plenty of experience of play-off despair.

With Charlton currently in sixth position, the prospect of a third play-off final meeting with Addicks is already looming large. Indeed, to some supporters, it is increasingly being viewed as inevitable.

Johnson is aware of the historical context in which a play-off campaign would be taking place, but accepts it will be his job to ensure his players do not become distracted by outside influences or any concerns over what might or might not have happened previously.

“I think it’s (dealing with that) something that you have to really learn,” he said. “As a manager, it’s so easy to let outside influences affect your train of thought. That’s the hardest thing to protect because you lose a purity with that.

“I’m obviously kept aware of any issues, or positivity or negativity in the media, but at the same time, I can’t let it affect me or the players. I have to be aware of it because it can sometimes affect them. My job is to try to maintain that emotional stability as much as possible within a club, without dismissing the human nature element of confidence or a lack of it.”

When it comes to today’s game, Johnson will not be taking any risks with Aiden McGeady, who missed Tuesday’s draw at Hull because of the foot injury he sustained in last weekend’s defeat at Blackpool.

McGeady’s problem is not a long-term issue, but mindful of the way in which the Irishman’s struggles with an ankle problem affected Sunderland’s play-off hopes two seasons ago, Johnson will not play the Irishman today if there are any concerns at all about his wellbeing.

Sunderland (probable, 4-3-3): Burge; Power, Wright, O’Nien, Hume; Scowen, Leadbitter, Winchester; O’Brien, Wyke, Jones.