Welcome to this week’s Roundtable discussion where the topics are the cup defeats, strongest starting eleven and what we make of the club cancelling the fan meet…

What do you make of the cup defeats? Were you bothered? Did you even watch them both?

Sobs was bitterly let down by the shambles that was the defeat at home to League 2 strugglers Mansfield Town, "The Mansfield game should have been a stroll, but a team that was nigh on bottom of the League structure managed to score a goal of the sort we should have scored several of. Both McFadzean and Diamond put a series of decent crosses into the box, but Grigg and Graham, the footballing equivalent of a Leonard Cohen song, simply didn’t attack either the ball or the area where it might arrive. That game showed why, of our experienced strikers, Wyke is the best option, although quite why we passed up the chance to give Kimpioka a run-out is beyond me… as was his non-appearance, for even a few minutes, in the Fleetwood game. This defeat hurt a lot less, mainly because it didn’t matter and we played well in the first half, showing what a difference it makes when the pace in the team isn’t solely restricted to one wing-back and one wide midfielder. Embleton surely has to be in the middle in future games, as his default attitude is to look forward and either run at, or past, the opposition or ping in a decent pass. On the downside, we managed to break a series of left-sided defenders with what looked like very similar injuries. To misquote Sir Ian Fleming, one is happenstance, two is coincidence, but three is enemy action. Or just very, very Sunderland."

Thomas Thornton, a regular both home and away in normal times, hasn't been interested in football without fans, "What do I make of the cup defeats? Interesting question! Honestly, I couldn't care less, we were hindered in some respects in the last two seasons by hectic fixture schedules and the cup run which got us to Wembley, as good as it was, did prove to be a bit of a bittersweet situation as the extra matches and midweek fixtures contributed to injuries and tiredness towards the end. I'll be honest, I haven't been watching the games and these two were no different, I do confess that I saw about a quarter of an hour of the horror show that was the defeat to Mansfield in the FA Cup last weekend. The part I saw was the abysmal misses from our struggling front men and then George Lapslie's header which turned out to be the only goal of the game."

Liam Burnham is disappointed with the results, "I think a cup run is what we needed to boost morale of ever more disengaged fans, people might argue that it will add to an already busy schedule but I genuinely believe that some silverware in the form of the EFL Trophy could be unspeakably beneficial for us. I know we're still in the Trophy but a defeat is always a set back, no matter what competition it is in. The FA Cup defeat is a big disappointment, we could've really had a decent cup run in that, it was the fact that Mansfield hadn't won a game for months and were at the basement end of the Football League made even worse for me. We must remain positive now and look up to the match against MK Dons on Saturday. I've been watching the Lads religiously this season and these two were no different, I think we need to keep the faith in the club and really keep a positive vibe around the team."

Michael Conroy added: "The cup is a bit of a conundrum really. Obviously I always want Sunderland to win but I guess you do have to look at priorities. In the current climate clubs at our level are after every extra penny they can get, but the big draw away at Old Trafford in the third round is a whole lot more less lucrative when there aren’t any fans in it. There would be television money of course but a third of the Old Trafford gate money would be welcome. Having said that there never is a guarantee that you’re going to get that big draw anyway and we could just have easily been knocked out by someone like Wigan in the third round and had very little to show for it other than knackered players. I was largely disappointed with the performance against Mansfield and that’s what riles the most. We should have an environment where fringe players bust a gut to make sure they are giving the manager a tough choice. I just didn’t see that against Mansfield. Fleetwood was different, it was a dead rubber and we got three injuries which unsettled the back line. Unfortunately we also went through so we don’t even get the benefit of saying we can concentrate on the league now. The kids were alright though and that sets out a marker for the manager now. It gives him something to say to the first teamers who were rested. There are young lads hungry for those places and that competition for the shirt can only be a good thing. I didn’t watch the Fleetwood game and I’d like to say that was out of a sense of stubborn resistance to a trophy that has made a mockery of what the EFL trophy was set up for, unfortunately I can’t. I just really couldn’t be arsed to watch a stream from an empty stadium for a meaningless cup. At least if we knew fans would be allowed at the final we might comfort ourselves with the fact it’s a trip to Wembley. The whole thing is farcical now though. I don’t think they’ve even played last season’s final yet have they?"

Time to get back on it in the league? Surely MK Dons at home is a must win?

Sobs knows we've done alright on paper in the league so far but we are far from perfect, "Absolutely. We’ve messed about with the team selection in the two cup games, which have shown where our positive options are (McFadzean, Neil and Embleton) and where we’re lacking (pace through central midfield and up front) so please, Parky, while I acknowledge that we’ve done OK in the league so far, address those issues as best you can. While we’ve been winning games, we’ve yet to do what decent teams do and blow away the opposition in the odd game – and we’ve not looked like doing it either. Add a bit of pace and sharpness to the relevant parts of the team, and scoring more than one or two could well become a regular occurrence rather than something we can only dream about. MK Dons gives us the opportunity to get straight back on the bike and put the two defeats, especially the first one, behind us."

Thomas Thornton thinks it is crucial that we get back on track in League 1, "It is absolutely paramount that we get back into our stride in the league, I cannot stress enough how important it is to get promotion, I said when we were first relegated to England's third tier that we needed to bounce back up straight away or if not we'd be here for a while. I think that last season was a bit of a write off but now this, in my eyes, is our final chance before we cement ourselves into League 1, we are looking very much like a mid table League 1 team and unfortunately we are beginning to run ourselves very much with a League 1 mindset rather than an aspirational attitude towards things. A bit of a rant but I think it needs to be said, I think we need to get a win on Saturday against MK Dons, it also needs to be convincing too, that is the problem we've had this season, we've won some games but unfortunately not convincingly in recent times, I suppose a win is a win but we cannot get promoted by scraping narrow victories."

Liam Burnham is confident for this weekend's clash, "I really can see us getting back on track, I think Parky has a proven system which works in this division. We were unbeaten for a long run until we met Pompey when we seemed to hit a bit of a road block and had a blip but I think we can get our season back on track, if we ever went off course. We've looked fairly solid in the league up until now, we've had a better than decent defensive record, one of the best in the country as a matter of fact, so I think we need to draw positives from the campaign so far and build on them. I would be very shocked if we didn't take all three points this weekend and certainly wouldn't be happy with anything less."

Michael Conroy feels MK is a must win.Definitely. We may not be the prettiest to watch at the moment but we are inches away from challenging in the top two. In some ways the cup was a good chance to rest a few ready for the main event to start again. In reality I wonder whether two defeats has upset the positive momentum we were starting to generate. The best way to put that to bed is to go for a thumping of your next opponent. That opponent happens to be MK Dons who looked absolutely rubbish when we played them at home last season. The away game was closer with Gooch’s strike sending off flares and smokebombs and their position in the league suggests this is a real opportunity. Looking at their results though they aren’t conceding huge amounts of goals but their form is wildly inconsistent. They held Ipswich to a draw but lost to Crewe. I suspect they tend to open up when playing lesser teams and play it tight against teams perceived s better opposition. Creativity in the midfield should be able to get through that but from what I remember of them they are incredibly fit and very hard working so it could be an interesting contest. They also have a lot of experience in there including the big lad who thought he could take on Sam Allardyce in the Norwich dugout. If you ask me if it’s a must win, I’m always going to say yes to that. A more balanced person, however, would probably agree with me on this occasion for the reasons I already mentioned. Two cup defeats with rested players mean that in order to justify the team selection you have to come out fighting when the league comes back around. A defeat or frustrating draw will have everyone asking what the point of resting players was. The negativity will seep in and we all know the effect that has. Plus, it’s MK Dons at home, of course we should be winning that.”

If everyone’s available what would be your starting 11?

Providing we’ve managed not to snap anyone else’s banjo strings in training, Sobs will go for:  Burge in goal, a back three of Willis, Wright and O’Nien, then Jack Diamond and Denver Hume as wing backs, Leadbitter and Embleton in the centre of the park with Maguire, Wyke and Gooch as a front three. I'd have Neil and Kimpioka coming off the bench, unless the curse of the hamstrings strikes again and we have to use Sanderson and McLaughlin as defensive replacements. I'd also quite like to see Josh Scowen and maybe Will Grigg on the bench to be used as options should we require them in a match."

Thomas Thornton thinks there's potential for a shake up of Phil Parkinson's beloved 5-2-3 formation, "I think that it may be time to change the formation, I see the argument for the system but also at the same time, we're short on numbers at centre half, especially how we're now playing full backs at centre half etc. so my starting 11 would be in a 4-4-1-1 formation: Burge in goal, O'Nien, Bailey Wright, Tom Flanagan and Denver Hume across the back (although I have been impressed by Callum McFadzean in the little I've seen of him), in the middle of the park I'd have Josh Scowen and Max Power with Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire on the wings, Aiden O'Brien sitting just behind Charlie Wyke up front. On the bench I'd make sure there is some youngsters there including people like Elliot Embleton, Dan Neil and maybe even Jack Diamond."

Liam Burnham reckons that the gaffer's 3/5 at the back formation is successful and is a proven system, "I cannot see why anyone would revert back to four at the back, Parkinson has always preferred three centre halfs with wing backs and it has proven to work, as I mentioned before, we have been solid defensively up until the visit of Portsmouth. I would go for, Burge between the sticks, O'Nien and Callum McFadzean as the wing backs, Jordan Willis, Dion Sanderson and Bailey Wright as the back three, Grant Leadbitter, Elliot Embleton and Max Power as the three men in the engine room, Lynden Gooch roaming behind the striker as a free position with Charlie Wyke leading the line. I'd have some young reinforcements on the bench, definitely Dan Neil, he was the bright spark in the midweek defeat, I would have Denver Hume as a defensive reinforcement who isn't afraid of going forward too and maybe someone like Jack Diamond on the bench too."

Michael Conroy’s Starting XI looks like this, "Burge over Matthews - Better of a bad bunch

RWB - O’Nien shades it for me just in terms of fitness and energy which I think will be important

CBs: Wright, Flanagan and Willis, then Hume at LWB, although McFadzean looked decent against Fleetwood; in the centre of midfield I'd go for Leadbitter, Power and Scowen with Chris Maguire free roaming up the top end of the field and Charlie Wyke up there too, leading the line."

Thoughts on the cancellation of the supporters groups meeting with the club? Are you surprised it was called off at short notice after the club requested questions in advance? Do you believe that the club are close to selling? They said at the start of COVID they expected to sell by May!

Sobs wasn't impressed but he wants to give the club the benefit of the doubt but thinks Jim Rodwell has a lot to answer for, "I don’t really want to have a go at the club over this, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but if the negotiations on a takeover/sale are at an advanced stage, they must have been in progress for some time, so to call it off at relatively short notice will only irritate a lot of fans – and this falls at the desk of Jim Rodwell yet again. Surely a big part of his job is to ensure that the supporters remain behind whatever regime owns the club, and while we’ve mostly nailed our colours to the mast of HMS DonaldSell, minimising any further disquiet should be a priority. While I acknowledge that selling a football club to a reputable buyer is a tricky business that the club want to get right, it does give the feeling of 'here we go again' in terms of communication with the fans. Of course many of the questions that we fans want to ask will be about the future ownership of the club, and we fully understand that, in the event of any negotiations being underway, certain questions could not be answered. We’re not daft. However, there are plenty of other questions that could have been answered, and the cancellation has caused the perfectly natural and understandable knee jerk reaction of 'they don’t want to talk to us.' I fully understand that things got messy a year ago when all sorts of information, both accurate and inaccurate, was flying about from inside and outside the club, and that the club would want to avoid a repeat of the confusion this caused. I fully understand that the club is nervous of failing to keep things on an even keel, and that they want to be able to give us answers that outline the future of the club – something they can’t do while a change of ownership is imminent. Just have the meeting, though, and answer the questions that can be answered. Even if it had taken place and the club had  answered only the questions that didn’t pertain to a sale - all of which they’ve had the plenty of time to prepare answers to – they would have at least fulfilled their part of the agreement to take part in a structured dialogue with the various fans’ groups. Failing to hold the meeting simply sends out the wrong message, even if it is a bit of a 'no-win' situation, and while taking part might well have sent out no message at all, that’s infinitely preferable to miffing the fans yet again. I’d love to believe that we’re close to being sold – but in March we were told a sale was expected by the end of May, and in August we were told the club was in a period of exclusivity with a potential buyer, the identity of whom is yet to be revealed. Neither of those things came to anything (or anything that we were told of), while the only information on any potential sale has been from William Storey, who seems to be all virtual and no reality – all of which leads me, and probably a whole host of other fans, to believe that us being near to a sale is as unlikely as it is likely. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but while I’m desperate to believe something, I’m struggling to find anything that I can absolutely believe. I understand that the club is buying time, and hopefully it’s for the right reasons - that negotiations took such a quick turn for the better in the early part of the week that they really are in possession of too few answers to make the meeting worthwhile. I also understand that they’re nervous of saying 'it’ll all be over by Christmas' as that sort of statement has come back to bite them in the past. Please, though, let there be some positive news soon."

Thomas Thornton is far from happy with the treatment of the fans by the club, "It's absolutely appalling the way the club is treating our loyal fanbase, I honestly think that these owners are taking the fans for granted and are quite frankly a group of fly by night chancers! It doesn't surprise me one bit that they cancelled it, Jim Rodwell is the same as Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, as far as I'm aware, I was never a fan of them, from the start! Our CEO has treated the fans with absolute contempt since he was appointed from backing 'Project Restart' to now completely avoiding questioning and scrutiny from fans. I'll believe the club is close to being sold when it is actually sold!"

Liam Burnham was quite annoyed but not surprised with the actions of the club and the CEO, Jim Rodwell, "Yes, I was expecting it to be cancelled in all honesty, as much as I want to see the best for the club and remain positive but it is just so difficult when the club are being so deceptive and non-transparent. I cannot see why they're going on like this, unless they have something to hide! I cannot see the club being sold this year, possibly the reason why they cancelled the meeting, to avoid fan scrutiny, but in the words of Bon Jovi, 'Lord we've go to keep the faith' and that's the outlook I'm taking!"

Michael’s thoughts on the cancellation of the meeting were more of disappointment, “More than anything else I am hugely disappointed in the club. Knowing some of the RAWA team I know how much hard work goes into pulling all of this together. They do it entirely voluntarily and get absolutely nothing back in return. They have taken the time to canvas fans for questions, to arrange Zoom calls during lockdown, to liaise with the club to get it all set up and then at the last minute the club back down. Then there’s the fans who have sent in questions, clearly wanting answers, what now for them? If this is because of a non disclosure period then what changed in the space of 24 hrs, why was it done at the very last minute? Did a bid come in on Tuesday morning? These things take a bit longer than that. If there were takeover talks going on then surely this was known and understood when the club originally asked for questions to be submitted in advance. Obviously there may be scenarios where things have changed in the build up to the meeting, but in the absence of full communication on this people will reach conclusions based on the available evidence. At the moment people might reasonably assume that the club backed out when they got the questions because they didn’t want to answer the questions. It’s November now, the sale was expected in May. There was no real explanation for that beyond Covid, but if you can run an election in the US and handle Brexit negotiations in the UK while Covid is still going on then I’m pretty sure you can sell a club. I understand there is uncertainty given the financial predicament of football at the minute, that’s why the club can not be worth £37m or whatever the asking price was. Do I believe that the club are close to selling? I’ve reached the point where I don’t take anything at face value when it comes from the Sunderland boardroom. It may be true, it may not be. It’s a believe it when you see it moment for me.”