SUNDERLAND’S seven-game winless run might have set nerves jangling, but Lee Johnson has assured the club’s supporters that his side will be a completely different proposition come the start of the play-offs.

With automatic promotion now off the table, the Black Cats will attempt to guarantee a play-off spot when they travel to Plymouth Argyle on Saturday. A win at Home Park will guarantee a finishing position in the top six, although Sunderland could lose and still cement a place in the play-offs depending on what happens in the games involving Portsmouth, Oxford United and Charlton Athletic.

As well as looking to nail down a play-off spot, Sunderland’s players will also be hoping to draw a line under their worst run of the season when they head to the South-West this weekend.

Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat to Blackpool made it seven games without a win, but while anxiety levels right across Wearside might have increased in the last few weeks, Johnson remains confident the play-offs will be a completely different proposition to what Sunderland have been facing in the last few matches.

“I understand the supporters’ anxieties, but all I can do is try to give off really positive vibes, which I fully believe in because I can’t be fake about it, going into the play-offs,” said the Black Cats boss. “That’s the hard part at the moment – I can’t quite give the message I want to because that part’s not guaranteed yet.

“The big rallying call can come after we secure that place, but I don’t care who we play in that semi-final, I fancy us. If we’re right, rested, prepared and focused, then I’d fancy us over two legs against anybody in the division. That might sound a bit bullish. I’m sure that’s what the Sunderland fans would like to hear, but I also fully believe it.

“My short-term concern is high after the recent run of results, but my long-term concern is zero. I am very confident that if we secure the play-offs, and then have that time to rest and work, we will come out of the traps like a greyhound. I’m very, very confident in that.”

Johnson’s confidence is partly a reflection of the belief he retains in his players, but it also stems from the knowledge that some key defenders are set to return.

Tom Flanagan, Conor McLaughlin and Jake Vokins should all be available for the play-offs, and as well as transforming Sunderland’s defensive options, the trio’s return will also significantly enhance Johnson’s ability to make changes in midfield.

At the moment, Luke O’Nien and Max Power are having to play as part of the back four, but Johnson has never hidden his acceptance that the pair are more effective as midfielders.

“That break period will give us the opportunity to get back to having round pegs in round holes,” he said. “That’s with the players that we’ve got injured that will be coming back.

“Then, the challenge is to try to get those guys to the top end of their peak performance, having had a few weeks out. To have people like McLaughlin, Flanagan and Vokins back will then create options in midfield as well, that we currently haven’t got.

“I’m very positive about the play-offs, but there’s no doubt that there is a concern over our short-term form and I’d be lying if I said I was happy.”