LEE JOHNSON insists he will “not be bearing a grudge” as Sunderland prepare to lock horns with Oxford United for the first time since the two clubs’ last meeting was blighted by an alleged headbutting incident at the Stadium of Light.

However, the Black Cats boss also admits he is more than happy for his players to use April’s unsavoury scenes as motivation as they look to claim the victory that would lift them level with leaders Rotherham United at the top of the League One table.

Sunderland claimed a 3-1 win when Oxford last visited Wearside towards the end of last season, but the scoreline only tells a small part of the story of a remarkable afternoon.

Black Cats assistant Jamie McAllister was handed a six-match ban following a fracas in the tunnel at half-time, with Oxford boss Karl Robinson claiming his goalkeeper, Jack Stevens, had been headbutted by a member of Sunderland’s coaching staff.

There were more ugly scenes after the final whistle, with Robinson receiving a fine and a four-game touchline ban for his part in proceedings, but Johnson will be offering his hand to his opposite number before kick-off tomorrow and is adamant April’s events are in the past.

“It’s just passion isn’t it,” said the Sunderland boss. “You’ve got a passionate set of staff in both ours and Oxford’s, and a passionate set of players. The difference this time is we’ve got 32,000 passionate fans behind us as well.

“I think it’s a different game and a new day. I would never hold a grudge on a personal level. I’m quite old-school like that. I don’t mind what goes on, but then you shake hands at the end of the game and you respect your opponents.”

In the wake of April’s meeting, it was striking how charged an atmosphere there was amongst the players, the majority of whom had witnessed the alteractions at half-time.

Max Power, in particular, was clearly overjoyed at scoring in the 90th minute, celebrating provocatively in front of the Oxford technical area, and while the former skipper is no longer on Sunderland’s books, five of the players involved in the game remain in the Black Cats’ squad.

That might well feel they have an extra motivation to succeed tomorrow afternoon, and could well pass that on to their team-mates. If that is the case, Johnson will not be attempting to rein things in.

“As a player, you can use all kinds of emotions to fire you up,” he said. “Absolutely. You’ve got to be a master of understanding yourself, and what makes you tick and gets you going.

“That could be the fact we’re fighting to go joint top of the league, it could be the fact that the individual wants to perform well for them and their family, or it could be because they want to beat Oxford in particular. Whatever. It’s okay. Find your motivation, and use whatever you need to do that. I’m sure Karl Robinson will be using that too.

“But, at the same time, on the sideline it’s my job to stay calm, make sure I’m giving the guys some good information and concentrate on trying to exploit any opposition weaknesses.”

With Sunderland’s injury list showing no sign of improvement, Johnson is set to stick with the new-look formation that was adopted in last weekend’s win at Cambridge. That would mean Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan and Callum Doyle lining up in a three-man backline, with Leon Dajaku and Lynden Gooch playing as wing-backs.

“The injury situation’s still not good,” admitted Johnson. “There’s no doubting that. It’s been a really difficult set of circumstances, but I think a lot of clubs are finding this.

“We’re not a million miles away from having a couple back. If we can get through the next couple of games without any more injuries, then it’ll start to look a lot healthier with the likes of Corry Evans, Denver Hume and Dennis Cirkin back. That’ll mean we’re able to give a couple of players a breather if they need it.”

Lee Burge will be on the substitutes’ bench having started Wednesday’s Papa John’s Trophy defeat to Oldham, with Johnson revealing that Anthony Patterson was not involved in the week because had he played, he would have been unable to return to his former loan employers Notts County.

“Anthony did extremely well at Notts County and then came back,” he said. “First, we’ve got to see how Lee reacts to two or three weeks’ training. Hoff has done well, and Patto always trains to a top level. The good thing is we have three very competitive goalkeepers, and we’ll make the right decision as and when, it’s just not yet.”

Sunderland (probable, 3-4-1-2): Hoffman; Wright, Flanagan, Doyle; Gooch, Winchester, Neil, Dajaku; Pritchard; Broadhead, Stewart.