Stewart's play-off warning

MARCUS Stewart has warned that failure to go up automatically will cost any of the top three promotion.Sunderland's leading scorer is hoping he will be walking in the Premiership wonderland next season with Sunderland and that Ipswich also go up - but he fears whoever finishes third will flop in the play-offs.

By Derek Davis

MARCUS Stewart has warned that failure to go up automatically will cost any of the top three promotion.

Sunderland's leading scorer is hoping he will be walking in the Premiership wonderland next season with Sunderland and that Ipswich also go up - but he fears whoever finishes third will flop in the play-offs.

With third-placed Ipswich entertaining leaders Sunderland tomorrow, second-placed Wigan have a chance to pull away from Town when they meet Leicester City today and could close the five-point gap on the Black Cats.

The Championship has been nip and tuck for so long at the top now that Stewart feels losing out on a top two finish would play havoc with the minds of the players who miss out.

Stewart said: “It has to be the worst nightmare for all three teams to now finish third.

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“How do you pick yourself up after being in an automatic place as often as all three of us have?

“All three teams have been top for good periods of the season too and it would be soul-destroying to not then go up automatically.

“There is no doubt about it, it will be very difficult to then go up.

“Last year there was no fall from grace for us as we were third for such a long time but, even so it was Palace who crept in to sixth place and went up.

“That happens so many times and it is rare that the team that finishes third goes up.

“We did it at Ipswich in 2000 but we had a very special group of players that year.”

The Black Cats' striker is enjoying a rich vein of form himself, with eight of his 16 league goals this season coming in the past 13 matches, but that has not guaranteed him Premiership football next season even if Sunderland make it.

The former Huddersfield and Bristol Rovers striker, who joined Sunderland from Ipswich for around £3.25m, is out of contract in the summer and has yet to discuss a new deal with manager Mick McCarthy.

Stewart said: “We have not spoken about it. A lot depends on where we are next season and nothing will be talked about until we know that.

“Promotion is the only thing we are all focusing on. We all know what it means for this club to go up and I don't want to upset the applecart by talking contracts at this stage. Mick McCarthy and I both know where we stand and we will talk about it at the right time.”

Town fans know what to expect from an in-form Stewart, who scored 21 goals for Town in their first season back in the Premiership, 21 in the league which made him the highest-scoring Englishman that season - only Chelsea's Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink outscored him.

This season didn't start too well for Stewart but he is finishing strongly and sending out a clear message that he still has plenty to offer.

He said: “I have not really changed my game. It is more that I have just got my head down and worked hard. There was a realisation of what a good team we had here and what a good chance we had of going up. I knew that I could help with my goals, along with Stephen Elliott.

“All we need now is one last push and that is what we are looking to do. Two more wins would see us through.

“For me, personally, I feel if I can get two goals in the remaining four games that will play a big part in us getting promoted.”

The promotion he helped Ipswich win should guarantee Stewart a good reception at Portman Road tomorrow, although he is not relying on it.

He said: “They have always been very good to me and I have appreciated that.

“I got a good reception when I came on a substitute last time.

“I'm not sure what it will be like this time, given the circumstances of the game, and if I'm on from the start. It would be nice if they did give me a good reception then just booed through the game.

“It would be a good time to be thick-skinned and deaf.”

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