Sunderland boss David Moyes has told his players to prove they are not just Premier League relegation fodder as they attempt to avoid another relegation scrap.
The Black Cats have survived by the skin of their teeth in each of the last four seasons, a period during which they have changed manager on five occasions.
Moyes was criticised in some quarters for predicting a fifth battle with the drop within weeks of his arrival on Wearside and while he is relishing the challenge, he has called upon his players to stand up and be counted as they look for a first league win at the fifth attempt at Tottenham on Sunday.
He said: “I’m certainly up for the challenge – that’s what I came for. When I wanted to come back in, I wanted somewhere that excited me – I’d like to say this was really exciting, but maybe not in the way I hoped!
“But there has to be a realistic element to this. There is a building job and we are up against it, undoubtedly. But we have got a great chance to prove ourselves and we have got a great chance to show what we can do.
“There are only two things we can do just now: sign players or get on the training pitch. Well, we are now in a part of the season where we can’t sign players, so the only thing we can do is get out there and try to work.
“But I have got to say, the players here need to lift their levels because for too long, it’s been too close to the bottom level. They need to show that this is not their level because maybe soon, some of you people might say it’s got nothing to do with the managers here, maybe it’s got something to do with the players.
“The players have to lift their levels for us to be competitive.”
Moyes could have key midfielder Lee Cattermole available for the first time this season following his return to training after hernia surgery, but it could be the retention of central defender Lamine Kone, who this week signed a new five-year contract after being heavily linked with Everton during the summer transfer window, which could prove pivotal.
Moyes, who admitted the defender’s situation had proved a distraction, said: “In truth, it took an awful lot of focus away from both me and the chief executive, Martin Bain, during the transfer window.
“But I have got to say it’s worth it because he’s a good player, we need him. But he’s now gone to a level where he has to become a leader, he has to become a top player.
“His contract suggests that, so we need him to perform at a really high level now.”