Well, we’ve swept aside Portsmouth and have a cup final on Sunday, so it’s quite a jolly Roundtable ensemble this week. Let’s hope we’re not heading for a fall…
So was Pompey our best performance of the season, or were they just very poor?
Not only was the Portsmouth game our best performance of the season, it was the 'big performance' that we've all been waiting for. Our recent results have been excellent but there's still been an element of grinding out results and riding our luck. Tuesday however, was as a complete performance as you could wish. I'm still not sure if Johnson knows his best starting XI or formation, but what is becoming apparent is it doesn't really matter. For me the most basic requirements on a football pitch should be for players to work hard and be happy to receive the ball. The first element can be achieved just by 'running around' but it is the second that is the major difference in recent weeks. Not only do the lads look comfortable in possession, but the willingness to demand the ball from each other in tight areas, is something I've not seen from a Sunderland side since the days when Sam Allardyce was in charge. No one is hiding, no one is afraid to take risks. Our passing was crisper and our pressing from the front was consistent and timed to perfection. As much as I admire Grant Leadbitter, I think the Pompey performance was evidence that we can function better as a team in his absence. Yes, this was 'one game', but when it's on the back of good performances and great results, there is definitely a feeling that this is now a fantastic opportunity to get out of this League.
This was the best performance we have put in against a team near the top of League One when we have been the ones in good form and favourites to win beforehand. I think we were better in the Lincoln and Doncaster games in terms of attacking ability, but to go into a game against a side we haven’t beaten away from home in 20 plus years and beat them so comfortably says a lot about where we are as a side at the moment. Both of the previous results mentioned came completely out of the blue and were off the back of poor results, whereas there was genuine pressure before this game to keep the good run going, especially given Pompey’s thrashing at the hands of Northampton on Saturday. To handle that pressure and expectation so well and look so comfortable throughout the game is a massive credit to Johnson, who now goes into the last 15 games of the season in an excellent position in terms of momentum and the league table.
I think it was one of our best performances of the season, even though we didn’t have to get into top gear we completely brushed Portsmouth aside and you could see the confidence flowing. Normally that’s a game where we come up short, especially having not won at Portsmouth since 1997, so to go there and win with a clean sheet is fantastic and sets the standard for the rest of the season. Sanderson and O’Nien were outstanding at the back and made one of the league’s best strikers, John Marquis look like Danny Graham. Jordan Jones was phenomenal going forward and that performance should solidify his place in the starting XI. If there’s one thing we need to do in the summer its sign Sanderson and Jones permanently, if we can. I don’t think Portsmouth were poor I just think we defended well enough so that they didn’t get a look in.
In all honesty I actually think we have played better at times this season. The game at home to Doncaster for example, and you could argue the game away to Lincoln as well. In my mind those performances are more exceptional because they came against teams who were in form. Portsmouth are anything but at the moment and you could tell that from how they played. They set out to battle but wilted as the game wore on and so it became a lot easier for us to control the match. Having said that you can only play what’s in front of you; they tried to bully us but ended up the ones whinging to the ref which was pleasing. We looked more cohesive and stronger as a result. If you look at the stats from that game we were more clinical and shut them out so they didn’t have a single shot on target. It feels like a better result because it keeps the momentum going and it came against a team we have a bit of history with. More than anything though, with other results going our way, a lot of people started to believe that an automatic spot or even top spot was now achievable.
How much are you now looking forward to the EFL Trophy final? And will be win?
Now this is where I slightly dampen the mood! I'm not that bothered about the final to be honest. I loved the final a couple of years ago and it was one of the best weekends I've had as a SAFC supporter, but this is a world apart. Of course, I want to win and of course it would be great to pick up silverware, and just as importantly break this ridiculous Wembley hoodoo, but I'd genuinely be happier with three points at Accrington Stanley next Wednesday than I will be with victory on Sunday.
I’m still a bit apprehensive about it, even though we have been on a good run of putting poor teams away in the league. A win would of course be welcome and would carry on the momentum whilst finishing off the Wembley hoodoo we’ve had for so many years, however, a loss would be pretty embarrassing and potentially damaging to the good form we’ve had recently, and would be worse than a normal, untelevised league loss. I think the potential for self-inflicted damage is greater than the potential for glory, as winning, for me, would be more about avoiding defeat at the national stadium in front of the rest of country (who’ve only just stopped laughing at us about the Netflix documentary) than the historical significance of winning the pizza cup. In terms of the match itself though, I think we should have enough quality to see off Tranmere, probably in the same manner that we’ve be winning recently, a clean sheet with a couple of clinical finishes.
I’ve been excited for the Pizza Trophy final for a while now, but I became even more excited when the news that James Vaughan is injured came out. Whilst I don’t think it will be an easy game, I can’t see us losing it, it seems like we’ve turned a corner under Lee Johnson and are winning games that we’d normally struggle in. Winning at Wembley will be the beginning of the new Sunderland and will be the first step in rectifying the horrors of the past four years.
I am massively looking forward to it. The beers are chilling, the flags have been dusted down and the commemorative shirt is ready for its very first outing. It’s hard thinking about Trafalgar and being at that huge stadium so recently and having to sit in my living room this time, but that doesn’t stop me from getting excited about a realistic prospect of finally putting this Wembley jinx to bed. It’s Wembley! Of course, I’m looking forward to it. I know we should all be saying that the league is the most important thing and this is just a side platter but any Sunderland fan sitting down to watch the final on Sunday will get caught up in it. Will we win? It’s Sunderland, it’s Wembley so logic says no. Realistically though we are the form team in League One and we’re playing a League Two team. Of course, we’re going to win!
Would you play a full-strength side against Tranmere, or rest a few?
Now this is where I slightly contradict myself! We're at Wembley, we're still building momentum as a team, so let's play our full-strength side (barring injuries/cup-tied etc), win the game and get it out of the way. It's hugely enjoyable again to watch us play, we're on a great run and it seems daft to dismantle that for a Cup Final. Let's keep the run going and keep any changes to a minimum.
It depends on who is fit and who isn’t. Despite what I said in the last answer, I would potentially give Neil a go in the midfield, meaning that O’Nein and Power could continue in a defence that has kept five clean sheets out of six, and generally been the foundation for our good run of form. I would also think about giving McGeady a rest because of the amount of fixtures we have coming up against the top teams in the league, and for him to get an injury in this game and jeopardise the momentum that he has helped built up would be disastrous. I do appreciate the argument for trying to keep as many players in the starting eleven as possible though, thereby keeping the good feeling amongst the squad with a win. I just hope we come out of this game unscathed, both mentally in terms of losing and physically in terms of injuries.
Full strength. I know in previous rounds we have given youngsters a run out, now it’s the final we have to go full strength. Underestimating Tranmere could come back to haunt us, even though they are in the division below us they are in great form, taking the most points in League Two in 2021. If we weren’t playing in the final we would be playing Wigan in a league game anyway so there is no reason to rest a few players. 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.
We have three days to recover from Wembley before we head to Accrington, another of my favourite away days that I can’t go to. Accrington are more of a threat than they have been in the past so they should not be taken lightly. I think it makes sense to rest a couple for Wembley. I would perhaps leave McGeady on the bench as an impact player later in the game. I wouldn’t risk Flanagan so soon after coming back from injury. Apart from that nobody looks too leggy at the moment and so I don’t see the need to rest too many of them. A victory at Wembley really gets the wind blowing in the sails and we need to take it seriously. If we don’t then LJ has a confidence rebuilding job to do afterwards. The best thing we can do is roar to an early big lead and just coast the rest of the game. Get it done lads.