Ahead of Sunderland’s away match at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday, @MattyCrichton spoke to BT Sport analyst @GeorgeDugdale who answered our questions on our upcoming League One opponents Oxford United.
You recently signed Jerome Sinclair on loan, a player who struggled to find goal scoring at Sunderland earlier this season - are you expecting him to play a lead role at Oxford?
He’s going to have to! We’ve played the vast majority of the season with Jamie Mackie charging around up top and some help has been desperately needed as he’s understandably fatigued. I’ve seen a lot of Sinclair since his days as a youth player at Liverpool and there’s talent there - certainly more than Sunderland got to see. He needs to make this work every bit as much as we are desperate for someone to succeed.
You currently sit 21st in the League One table, but are just six points from 12th position, are confident Oxford can avoid relegation this season?
When you’ve been largely mediocre throughout the campaign, the following statement may sound strange - I don’t think this squad is anywhere near as bad as the league position suggests. You’re never too good to go down, but if this squad can show the levels of performance that saw 4 points taken from Portsmouth and Barnsley recently, you’d hope we can move away from danger.
Your manager Karl Robinson left Charlton for Oxford last season, has he faced any scrutiny this season or are the fans united behind him?
Plenty! There were points at which it felt like a parting of the ways could have been forthcoming, but a strong relationship with the chairman who chose him, and some timely results have helped Robinson to keep his job. There have been plenty of times when there has been too much talk coming from the club and that is led by the manager. It no longer feels like a sacking is imminent (if indeed it ever was) so we’ve got to get behind this manager and squad in what remains of the season for the good of the club.
Oxford haven’t won away from home during this campaign but possess an impressive home record, has the Kassam Stadium been more of a fortress this season?
The manager didn’t particularly help the ‘fortress’ aura when he admitted the players don’t like playing there, but there have been some decent results at home (at times). When you’ve been as poor as we have on the road, it’s hard not to prefer a home fixture!
You were recently knocked out of the EFL Trophy by League Two side Bury, did that feel like a kick in the teeth for the fans or do you not care about that competition?
It depends who you ask. The performance was woeful, which didn’t help the mood regardless of the competition, but attendances show that people don’t really care for the competition. We’ve been to the final twice (the final year of the authentic JPT and the first year of the new version) and lost both times so it’s not like we’re lacking in recent Wembley visits. As ever, the money would have been nice and it’s a shame that some of our younger players won’t have the chance to get more minutes under their belts now.
If you had to pick 2 or 3 players, who do Sunderland need to be cautious of during our game?
James Henry’s numbers this season are excellent. He’s done well in a deeper midfield role than his natural attacking position and we’d be in even deeper trouble without his goals and assists. Cameron Brannagan had a good relationship with Jerome Sinclair at Liverpool and looks a threat when he gets around the box. He’s got a future above our level. He may be a fitness doubt for the weekend, but Marcus Browne has also had a good season on loan from West Ham. He’s had his quiet spells, as you would expect with any youngster, but he’s as good as you’ll see at this level in a one v one situation. If he can add consistency, he’s set for a great future in the game.
Sunderland were strongly with your centre-back Curtis Nelson in the January transfer window, are you surprised he is still an Oxford player?
Not really. I don’t think he’ll extend his contract beyond the summer, but you can’t lose your best defender when you’re in our position. There’s some debate as to whether he’s been as impressive as he once was after a very serious Achilles injury, but I suspect he’ll still be Championship-bound when the time comes.
It has been well documented that Chris Maguire was signed by Stewart Donald on the back of his excellent form at Oxford - where you sad to see the Scot leave?
Absolutely. He was a lot of fun to watch and his ability to rile opponents was second to none. Nobody plays the role that Mags did in derby fixtures against Swindon and leaves anything less than a hero.
Lastly, if you had to give an honest prediction, what do you think the score will be at full-time?
We’ve performed well against Portsmouth and Barnsley on home soil recently and with a good attendance expected, it should be another cracker. 1-1, although there may be a little optimism in that!