Given Sunderland’s strong run of form, it is hardly surprising that international managers are looking at our players when picking their squads for upcoming matches. Despite five players called up during the last set of fixtures and Jon McLaughlin already selected for Scotland this time around, Sunderland are nevertheless going ahead with their home fixture against Wycombe Wanderers. Whether it should be done, is another question.
Sunderland have benefitted from postponing games in recent seasons, most obviously during the ‘Great Escape’ of 2014 which began with an away game against Manchester City. The trip to the Etihad had been pushed back by high winds, which postponed the original fixture. Going into the game bottom of the league, only a Vito Mannone fumble two minutes from time prevented Sunderland taking all three points in a 2-2 draw. This galvanised a struggling team ahead of difficult away trips to Chelsea and Manchester United and relegation crunch matches against Cardiff and West Brom, the latter being rearranged to accommodate the League Cup Final. Sunderland, of course, won all these matches and secured survival with a game to spare. The next two seasons saw similar heroics. Games against Arsenal and Everton were pushed back to the second last game of the season because of their involvement in cup competitions, and Sunderland took the points necessary to beat the drop.
Pushing these fixtures back meant that the opposition were effectively on the beach in these games, and allowed us to take advantage. Meanwhile, our relegation rivals were playing their matches with the added pressure of knowing that Sunderland were in position to capitalise when they dropped points. In this sense, there are similarities with this season. Recent slip ups by Portsmouth and Peterborough have already allowed Sunderland to make gains in the promotion race, and winning the game in hand could tip the balance further in our favour.
Of course, there are limits to how far you can compare these scenarios with the current dilemma. Obviously, it is unlikely that a game scheduled for October would be pushed to the end of the season. However, the extra games in League One mean that the impact of fixture congestion is far greater than in the higher divisions. With the Blackpool match still yet to be rearranged, the dates for Barnsley away and Walsall at home fall during the March international break. To prevent a fixture backlog, something Jack Ross is keen to avoid, it is necessary to play some of these games as scheduled, with whoever is available.
Going ahead with the Wycombe game will give squad players a chance to impress that, given the excellent form of the team, they would otherwise not get. Sunderland are likely to be without both Jon McLaughlin and Tom Flanagan, so Robbin Ruiter and either Alim Ozturk or Glenn Loovens will be given a chance to stake a claim for a starting spot. Though even a strong performance one of these replacements would not warrant them remaining in the team upon McLaughlin and Flanagan’s return, it is not a bad idea to test the depth of the squad. If Sunderland are to win promotion this season, every player must play his part. Ruiter, Ozturk or Loovens coming in and reminding Jack Ross and the rest of the squad what they are capable of can only provide healthy competition.
Jack Ross is between a rock and a hard place; play without several key players, or hang on and deal with a fixture backlog later in the season. Ultimately, the decision to go ahead with the game can only be judged in hindsight. Win the game with a weakened team and Ross’ stock can only rise; lose it, and questions will undoubtedly be asked.