It has become increasingly clear in recent years that the gap between the Premiership and the Football League has become a yawning chasm.

But if there is one club who can bridge that great divide, then it must be First Division leaders Sunderland.

No one outside the top division can match their support or their potential.

Their crowds, averaging just under the 40,000 mark at the magnificent Stadium of Light, are the envy of all but a handful of top clubs in the Premiership.

If they win promotion - as they surely must - they have plans to extend their capacity to 50,000 to make the new stadium one of England's premier football venues. However Sunder-land, like their North East rivals Newcastle, have been under-achievers given the fanatical support for football in that part of the world.

Now, they are on the verge of what could be a glorious era, providing their performances on the field match their off-the-field potential.

They ought to have capped their first season in the new stadium by winning promotion last season, but they were cruelly beaten by Charlton in the most dramatic of play-off finals at Wembley.

The match finished 4-4 after extra time, but Sunderland lost 7-6 on penalties when goalkeeper Sasa Ilic stopped Michael Gray's spot kick to win promotion for Charlton.

Automatic promotion would have been sealed if they had not lost five of their first ten matches in an inconsistent start to the season.

Sunderland have not made the same mistake this time, leading from the front from the start and go into tonight's match with a nine point lead over second placed Ipswich.

The level of expectation is immense on Wearside this season - a fact illustrated by the post-match phone-in on a local radio station when City had earned a goalless draw last October.

Several callers even went as far as calling for Peter Reid to be sacked - this because the result saw Sunderland drop to second in the table.

Despite this frustration among a section of the fans, Reid's side have been the model of consistency with just three defeats from their 35 league matches.

Significantly, they have eight points more than they had at this stage of last season and five more than the eventual champions Nottingham Forest had collected.

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