WITH three matches remaining, and another play-off battle likely, this crop of Sunderland players have another opportunity to prove they have the right mentality to succeed in League One.

But are they strong enough as a group? That is the question on the lips of many fans and head coach Lee Johnson had to answer a similar question after watching his side throw away a two-goal half-time lead against Accrington Stanley.

Having previously put themselves firmly in the title race with a 14-match unbeaten run, in all competitions, Sunderland have now gone on a six-match winless run that has left them out of touch with the top two. They have work to do to guarantee a top-six spot.

Results have never really been the same since Oxford United got under their skin on April 2 when there was ‘that’ tunnel incident as well as captain Max Power celebrating in front of the away dug-out. Incidentally, Sunderland could well face Karl Robinson’s side in the play-offs.

But there is still time. Time for Sunderland to prove they have a group of winners inside that dressing room and for Johnson to deliver Championship football back to Wearside – something Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson were unable to do.

It would seem Sunderland will have to do it the hard way, via the play-offs. Something they failed to do two years ago before missing out on the top six last season.

Asked whether it was a mental thing at Sunderland, Johnson said: “It could be. I’ve not been here long enough to read that one.

“Anxiety can set in, but I don’t think it should have set in on Saturday. it was a free-flowing start, conducive to winning four and five in a row. But there is a little gene in us that we have to harden up. We have to search extremely hard.”

Sunderland were in complete command against Accrington. A bright opening led to Charlie Wyke becoming the first Sunderland player to score 30 goals in a season since Kevin Phillips’ Premier League heroics in 1999-2000 with a five-minute brace. He rose in typical fashion to head Lynden Gooch’s fine cross beyond Toby Savin, and five minutes later he arrived at the front post to turn in Aiden McGeady’s lovely run and cross.

There looked to be few issues at that point, although Accrington caused occasional problems to a back four which has chopped and changed in recent weeks because of further injuries.

After the restart, Accrington made the most of that weakness. Colby Bishop slotted in their first five minutes into the second half before Luke O’Nien headed beyond Lee Burge and into his own net after a breakdown in communication.

Sunderland regrouped and reclaimed the lead with seven minutes left when Power was played in by Jack Diamond following a counter-attack.

Accrington recovered again. Sean McConville struck a sweet 25-yard free-kick in off the underside of the bar and John Coleman’s side could have easily won it from there.

Johnson said: “If you are conceding goals through individual errors then it can be costlyIt‘s telling me you can either change the manager or the players, and we don’t want to do any of that, so we have to focus on our strengths and start to do things right again.”

With three games remaining and a nine-point gap to second-placed Peterborough, Sunderland look set for the play-offs. Johnson is not taking that for granted just yet.

He said: “We have to secure a place in the play-offs, that’s not done. We have to get a result at least in the next two games. Then we have to press the reset button.”