So, with eight games to go we rounded up the gang for the ALS Roundtable…
Overall are you happy with a return of four points from the Easter weekend games against Oxford and Peterborough?
Yes, I would have taken four points before the two games over Easter. Even though we started slowly against Oxford and deservedly went behind, we showed great character to turn it around and come away with three points. A draw was probably a fair result against Peterborough, we started brightly but then faded allowing Peterborough to come into the game. In years gone by we would have capitulated when going 1-0 down, so to come away with a point shows how far we’ve come under Lee Johnson.
Of all the different possible permutations over the weekend we probably have to be happy with the four points. I had told myself before the weekend that four points would be great if the three came against Peterborough, but it went the other way. That said, if you look at Peterborough’s home record it’s very good and as a result our point there doesn’t look bad at all. We will definitely be more pleased than they are with the draw, not just because they had the lead but because they have missed a chance to take it out of our hands. That single point at Peterborough has meant that if we win our games in hand, we are top of the league. I know that’s a big if but psychologically that’s important. If we had come off the back of Easter weekend knowing that we had to rely on Hull and/or Peterborough to slip up to get promoted, that would have been harder to work with. In terms of the performances, we looked a little laboured against Oxford despite the score line and we looked vulnerable at the back against Peterborough, so there is plenty still to work on. Seeing Hume come back is a big plus and I would hope to see him play a big part in the final furlong. Six points would have been lovely, but four is canny.
Undoubtedly. After taking maximum points against Oxford and avoiding defeat to Peterborough, we've maintained our status as the only team who can finish top regardless of how anyone else fairs. As well as taking a point away to the side with the best home record in the division, it's still advantage Sunderland in the promotion race.
Do you feel the change of formation, playing Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke up front together, against Peterborough, worked?
It didn’t work at all, but I understand why Lee Johnson started them up front together. The pitch at London Road was awful and with the windy conditions, playing two tall centre forwards was probably the right thing to do. The state of the pitch wouldn’t have allowed to us to play our normal high press, passing football. However, I felt both Wyke and Stewart were bullied out of the game by Peterborough’s defenders Beevers and Kent. Hopefully Johnson refers back to our usual formation at home to Charlton on Saturday.
I think this is the thing with Wyke really, once he started scoring regularly he became the obvious man for opposition to mark. I think the Peterborough centre halves were excellent on Monday and did a good job against a couple of strikers who are going to be a handful for a lot of teams. I actually think in different circumstances O’Brien may be a better foil for Wyke than Stewart just based on the fact that he looks marginally better on the deck. It’s unsurprising that Stewart is sometimes a bit awkward with his touch and I think Johnson is going to have to go with tactics when deciding who to play up front. It’s just nice to have that option for a change to be honest. With Peterborough’s defence we were probably always looking at set pieces or shots from distance for a goal and I think that’s why Johnson went with Wyke and Stewart. Balls in from Jones and McGeady to big men in the middle. The fact that it was McGeady who scored the equaliser doesn’t necessarily mean that the tactics didn’t work, it just signalled that their central defenders played really well. We were a handful up front and against a lesser team they probably would have both been on the scoresheet.
Despite it being a partnership I was eager to see tested, Wyke and Stewart were very ineffective on Monday. It was clear the plan was to aim to play long ball and win headers, but Beevers and Kent coped with it easily. As much as I've been a massive advocate of O'Brien joining Wyke up-top, I wouldn't rule Stewart and Wyke out as a pair yet. Peterborough away was always going to be a tough fixture and their attacking prowess meant we had to be cautious in how much we committed offensively, potentially leading to the pair being isolated more than they would in other games. The partnership wasn't very effective at all against The Posh, but I wouldn't rule it out for the remainder of the campaign.
With the news that the FA Cup final will host 22,000 fans in mid-May fuelling rumours that the Play Off finals at the end of that month will also house spectators, in a hypothetical Sunderland go up whatever scenario, would you rather watch us win the league v Northampton, in your living room in a stream, or be at Wembley to see us win the play off final?
In a hypothetical scenario I’d rather watch us win at Wembley in the Play-Off Final than be at home, but in reality I really couldn’t care where I watch, as long as we get out of League One.
Sunderland go up whatever? So, we’re absolutely guaranteed to go up even if we get to the play offs? Yeah let’s go with that. I mean I probably wouldn’t get a ticket given that I spat my dummy when Rodwell was saying stupid things and I refused to renew, but these games without fans are soulless. Wembley will look odd even with 22,000 in but it’s a start and anything that gets us back to grounds soon is a good thing. The discussions around vaccine passports may have an impact on that as well, but we’ll have to wait and see. The main reason for me choosing winning the play offs over automatic though is so that we see less of the two games against Charlton being rolled out every single time someone wants to illustrate how shit it has been for Sunderland fans. Winning a play-off final, which we obviously have never done, would just be another ghost laid to rest so yeah, let’s go to Wembley and beat Charlton on penalties.
This is just personal, but I'd much rather see us win the league on the final day of the season. As much as rounding off what would be a very successful campaign by lifting a trophy in-front of thousands of fans would be a rather fitting way to conclude our time in the third tier, securing promotion has to be an absolute priority. This season, above any other, has put players through their paces like never before. The last thing needed after matchday 46 is the looming pressure of the play-offs. Secure automatic promotion at all costs.