WHEN Donald Love and Ashley Fletcher played in the same Manchester United youth team the best part of a decade ago, they shared a number of dreams.

A first-team debut in front of a packed Old Trafford, an appearance alongside each other in the Champions League, maybe even an open-topped bus ride around Manchester celebrating their latest piece of silverware. What they did not envisage was a shared relegation battle at the foot of the Championship, amid a backdrop of mounting supporter discontent and empty stands.

Things haven’t really gone to plan for either player since they signed their first professional contracts within a couple of months of each other four years ago, but for all that they now find themselves playing for a Sunderland side fighting to avoid relegation to League One rather than a Manchester United team battling for the Premier League title, a shared sense of respect and admiration remains.

Love might have been an unused substitute in last weekend’s 2-0 defeat to Ipswich Town, but with Billy Jones struggling for form and both Lamine Kone and Jake Clarke-Salter battling against injury, the 23-year-old could well find himself back in the starting line-up when Sunderland travel to Bristol City tomorrow. Fletcher has only been a Black Cat for a week-and-a-half after moving on deadline day, but the Middlesbrough loanee might well be the club’s key player in the final three months of the season.

Sunderland have scored just 31 goals in their 30 league matches, and the only player to have scored more than five, Lewis Grabban, is now plying his trade with Aston Villa. Fletcher scored his only league goal this season back in September, but given the lack of experienced alternatives available to Chris Coleman, it is no exaggeration to claim he might well have Sunderland’s fate in his hands.

“I know Ashley from our time at Manchester United, and he will be a good addition up front,” said Love. “Josh (Maja) and Joel (Asoro) are good, but he will add some presence, along with Kazenga (LuaLua).

“He is a year younger than me, we were in the same youth team and reserves. I didn’t speak to him before he signed on loan because it was last minute, but I spoke to him on his first day in training and he is buzzing to be here, to be playing.

“He has a good presence about him, he is a good striker and, for a big man, he is good with his feet. He brings people into play and that is what we need, someone who can hold it up.

“He is a good finisher too, and will get some goals for us during his time here. He hasn’t played a lot for Middlesbrough, but hopefully the Ipswich game will have helped boost the fitness of all the new players ahead of this weekend.”

Tomorrow’s game takes Sunderland to Ashton Gate to take on a Bristol City side that are stuttering themselves after a run of just one win from their last nine outings in all competitions, and with three of the Black Cats’ next four matches pitting them against teams in the top half of the table, it is surely imperative they do not allow the two-point gap currently separating them from 21st position to increase.

There have been times during Coleman’s reign when it looked as though a corner had been turned – the home win against Fulham, the battling away victory at Nottingham Forest. But for every success, there has been a couple of failures, and the brutal reality is that Sunderland have spent 16 of the last 18 weeks inside the bottom three.

That confirms that relegation to League One is a distinct possibility, and for all that even contemplating Sunderland in the third tier is a difficult thing to get your head around, it is not a scenario that can be ignored.

“It’s a scary thought because Sunderland had always been in the Premier League when I was growing up,” said Love. “All I’ve known is Sunderland in the Premier League, nobody expected us to be where we are now. But we are, and we need to get ourselves out of it. It is down to us as a group of players.

“Everybody needs to step up and do their jobs, and make sure this club doesn’t drop down to League One. We do that by stopping this ‘Win one, lose a few’, and start winning every game and building a winning mentality.”

That, though, is easier said than done. It could be argued that Sunderland have not had a winning mentality for more than a decade, but last week’s influx of deadline-day signings has at least provided a fresh perspective and an opportunity to look to the future rather than the past.

Fletcher, Lee Camp and Ovie Ejaria were all involved against Ipswich despite only having moved to Sunderland three days earlier, and the trio should all be better tomorrow with a full week’s training under their belt.

“Hopefully, fresh faces will help bring that winning mentality,” said Love. “They’d only trained once or twice before the Ipswich game, so this week has been important for them.

“With the new lads, everyone has stepped up their game in training and looked a lot sharper. We have the quality in training, we need to show it in matches. That is what frustrates us as players, we know we can do it, but we need to do it in matches. We need to stop letting our heads drop.”