Without getting carried away, you could argue that if we win our next three games, we’ll have some silverware and could go up automatically. We discuss the finer details in this week’s round table…
So, we are climbing the table slowly but steadily with four wins and a draw from our last five league games. Are we starting to look like the real deal?
Yeah, I think we are, slowly. It’s clear to see Lee Johnson’s style of football has now imprinted itself onto the players and we now look like a side well capable of gaining promotion. However, in the last five games we have played Burton, Fleetwood and Swindon who are all in the bottom half of the division. Not to rain on anyone’s parade but sweeping those teams aside should be second nature to us. That being said, we can beat the top sides as well as shown with the result against Doncaster. A key test on whether or not we really are the ‘real deal’ will be away at Portsmouth on the 9th March. If we have any intentions on going up then we have to win, draws aren’t good enough anymore, it’s what cost us promotion in our first season in League One and could well be something we look back on again in May should we fail to go up.
Our issue in this league always seems to have been unable to consistently beat the poorer sides, especially at home. If we are able to beat Rochdale at home this Saturday, we then find ourselves in a really good position in terms of the league table with 14 games left, having beaten four teams in the last five who are 16th or below. Should the good form against the top sides continue then you would fancy us to make a real go of the automatics. However, with the injury crisis in defence, we might need to be able to score two or three every game, as the likes of Portsmouth, Lincoln and even Accrington will offer more in attack than Swindon, Fleetwood and Burton. I suspect that Johnson will be more proactive then his predecessors in this division, particularly Parkinson, and will set up for those games specifically to exploit the oppositions weakness’ as opposed to Parky, who, earlier in the season, telegraphed the starting eleven for the home game against Portsmouth, giving them time to think of a way to play against us, meaning that they targeted Leadbitter - resulting in him giving the ball away for two of their goals after he had produced a really good run of form prior. At the very least Johnson will keep them guessing, which will give them less of a clear game plan to combat us.
The recent run of results – and I include the defeat and the draw in that – has shown that we have a team, and more importantly a squad, that is capable of maintaining our current upward trajectory. We’ve won games of late without looking particularly effervescent, showing patience and resilience as teams continue to see us as a big scalp. Do they not realise that we’ve been in the third division since 2018? It’s a mark of quality that we’ve lately been able to overcome the opposition raising their game for their “cup final” and actually look like we might actually be the team we fans hoped we’d be.
Absolutely! There just seems to be a turning of the tide, I know we have some players who we may question in terms of their ability but look at it this way; we’ve come off the back of the Shrewsbury game with a disappearing line of defenders and we’re picking up points. Imagine if we were full strength! The place seems to have lifted and we have a bit of a swagger in our stride. There’s a real confidence about the key players in our squad and there’s now a bit of competition which has seen Maguire and McGeady both rise to the occasion. I should probably mention Charlie Wyke as well. What a change there has been in him. He looks taller and stronger and he’s burying chances he wouldn’t have even been in the position to get to six months ago. Sanderson is looking like he’s playing way below his level and when we get either Wright back we will look solid at the back. We’re on our way.
Injuries continue to mount and players are being asked to play out of position. Could the injuries be our downfall, or will all clubs be having these issues with two games a week in League One? Could SAFC having a larger squad than most give us a major advantage at this point in the season?
I think everyone is in the same boat to be honest. Most sides are playing twice a week and are dealing with mounting injuries. I think our big squad is an advantage at this point in the season, but a bigger advantage is how versatile our squad is, as seen with our makeshift back four. The likes of Power and O’Nien have dropped into defence and are doing a fine job. Their performances could be the reason why we end up getting promoted come the end of the season.
A few other teams don’t seem to have been as unlucky as us in terms of key injuries, Hull and Peterborough seem to have had their key players available for selection for most of the season, for example. Part of the issue with having so many defenders injured is that it’s leaving us with less midfielders, which has resulted in the three of O’Nien, Power and Scowen not being able play in the same midfield since that fantastic performance against Doncaster at home. We are still able to turn out a team which is good enough to win matches at this level, but we need to be going into the games against Portsmouth, Accrington and Lincoln with McLaughlin and Flanaghan/Wright back into the defence, which can then hopefully result in O’Nien and Power being pushed higher up the pitch, meaning that we can play the same way that we did the Doncaster home game.
The fact that we’re in a good vein of form despite losing all but one of our central defenders, our only right-back, and our established left-back, as well as our new centre forward (yet to kick a ball in anger) shows that we have a squad capable of adapting and a manager who can see who can fill in where. At a time of the season when injuries and suspensions inevitably hit every team, and this season in particular thanks to there being two games a week, a bigger squad than most could well prove to be a decisive factor. Add to that a striker who’s scored 14 times since the turn of the year, and we’re looking the business. This gets under the skin of other teams, and the mental side of things creeps in as they begin to envy our bigger squad and our prolific forward – they see us lose someone like Leadbitter, and replace him with Scowen or Winchester. They see that we’ve lost nearly our entire defence, and we’re still doing OK, swapping from three to four at the back thanks to have adaptable players… and they see Luke O’Nien scampering about like a maniac with a great big smile on his face.
It’s mad, we’re going through one of our worst run of injuries and it’s all in one area yet we’re embarking on one of our best runs form wise. That’s what gives me optimism really. I’m not sure if squad depth is the saving factor here, I think it’s more that we have players who can slot in. League One is not the most technically proficient league in the world and so it becomes easier for players like O’Nien and Power to slot into unfamiliar roles. In comparison to other teams I guess we probably do have a larger squad, but so we should. We’re twice the size of our nearest competitors at least in terms of attendances so we should be throwing our weight around financially. I’m fed up of people calling us arrogant and then saying what a great job they did against mighty Sunderland when they play ten at the back and feign injury every five minutes before taking twenty minutes to make a substitution or take a goal kick.
We are on a run of playing some of the weaker teams in the league at the moment, like Swindon and Rochdale, but we have Pompey away next Tuesday. Should that game take precedence over the Pizza Cup Final a week Sunday? In other words, can we use a cup final to rest key players, or is it just one more game?
A cup final is a cup final, regardless of whether it’s the Pizza Trophy and I would hope Lee Johnson would play a full-strength team. If we weren’t playing in the final, we would be playing Wigan in a league game anyway so there is no reason to play a weakened side. Winning the game at Wembley could be a huge boost for us going into the end of the season so playing our best players is a must in my opinion.
Without being too obvious, it depends on the results. If Johnson rests key players for the final and we win it, before going on to play our first-choice players in the league games afterwards and winning them, then he’ll be in a great position. However, if he does that and we lose the final and then lose the following games due the lost momentum, then it’ll look like a terrible decision. I can understand both points of view, to be honest, although if I had to be pressed to choose one then I probably would rest two or three players. The ideal scenario is us going 3 or 4 up inside the first 20 minutes, before taking 3 of the senior players off at half time. This is obviously highly unlikely however, given that Tranmere will be right up for it and will probably make the game an utter slog that’s decided either way from a set piece or moment of brilliance.
Following “easy” games against Swindon and Rochdale, we have a bigger set of opponents in Pompey, but we’ve seemed to do better against the so-called bigger clubs this season, possibly due to them regarding us more as equals rather than a big scalp. That Pompey match is undoubtedly a huge game, and in the long-term, may well be more important than the Papa John’s Trophy. I don’t think we should rest anyone from the league game for reasons other than injury, just as I don’t think we should rest anyone from the Cup Final. Imagine the boost a win at Wembley, after 48 years, would give the club, and then balance that with how bad we’d feel if we failed there yet again, especially if we’d played an under-strength side. Perhaps a couple of starters we would not normally expect, but with the number of subs we’re allowed, and the willingness of Johnson to make wholesale changes if things aren’t going our way, and those changes to alter the course of the game, our big squad becomes a key factor again. Of course, it won’t be the same as if the fans were in attendance – no taunting the opposition with chants of “Papa John’s, Pap John’s, Papa John’s” – but we’re now in the rhythm of playing twice a week, so the final is in effect just another match to be played and hopefully won.
I’m absolutely in two minds on this. Logically, we need to beat Pompey and get out of this league. That makes perfect sense. But... it’s Wembley. We haven’t won there since 1973 and to be honest it’s getting to be a bit of a ballache. A win there would push us forward in my opinion. We’re playing Tranmere who are in League Two. They’re fourth in League Two so they are clearly battling through it. If we lose to Tranmere, then a darkness ebbs over us again and the hoodoo reappears. Let’s put that to bed and get a win. Use Pompey as a trial game, if you play well here you get to play at Wembley; that’s the message I would be sending out. The players know that the league is the priority but with the virtual ticket initiative raising so much money they know we’re behind them. Let’s win something at least, then we can go up and have something to remember this shit show for. I’ve ordered my commemorative Papa John’s Sunderland shirt, so they’d better win now!