We haven't had one of these for a while as we ourselves have been sizing up O'Neill's Sunderland never mind anyone else, but we are back with a corker.
Regular readers of Roker Report will be familiar with the gentleman with whom we are dropping the gloves and taking a 5-minute major (that's Ice Hockey talk, by the way) this time. He is our Mr Stoke City of Fan Focus fame. We presume he leads with that accolade on both his CV and introductions to strangers, but he is also noteworthy for being a hugely valued member of the TEAMtalk team.
So lets hear it!
Stoke are known for a physical game and strong set pieces, Arsenal for possession football. Do you consider Sunderland to have a similar identity, and if so what?
Mark: Tough question. If you’d asked me prior to Steve Bruce’s sacking I’d have said that no, Sunderland don’t have a particular identity. In fact I think a lack of an identity was one of the team’s biggest problems under Bruce – you were neither an outstanding passing team nor an extremely well-drilled, well-organised one.
It’s tough to judge so early into Martin O’Neill’s reign but history – and early evidence – suggests you will be more like Stoke than Arsenal. This is a man that often fielded four centre-halves at Aston Villa, remember. Saying that, I think there are some talented players in the Sunderland squad, in particular Stephane Sessegnon, and O’Neill has a knack of allowing flair players to shine in otherwise solid, tough-to-beat teams. There’s no better ‘identity’ than that.
How competitive do you think Sunderland can hope to be in the transfer market? Which clubs do you consider their natural competitors for signings?
Mark: Providing the money is there, very. The ‘big six’ are shopping in a different market but Sunderland can rival any of the other Premier League teams for players. The stadium certainly helps in that regard and I think the club could quite fairly be called a ‘sleeping giant’. O’Neill’s appointment makes the club even more attractive but the problem, of course, is whether the money is there, not just for transfer fees but for wages.
From your vantage point, what would you consider to be the iconic or most memorable Sunderland moment during your time watching football?
Mark: I suspect I won’t be alone on this, but the game that instantly springs to mind is the play-off final against Charlton. Obviously it didn’t end well for you but I think anyone that watched that game will remember it as one of the best they ever witnessed.
Niall Quinn claims that Sunderland have dropped their 'yo-yo club' tag. Do you agree with that and consider Sunderland now an established main stay of the Premier League, or is it a club you would still not be surprised to see involved in a relegation battle?
Mark: No, I’d agree with Quinn. Even earlier this season when you were struggling under Bruce, I never honestly believed you would be in danger of going down. I think of you as a big club with a big squad and big resources and there will always be at least five or six teams that I will think of as relegation contenders before Sunderland. That’s not to say relegation is an impossibility but you certainly shouldn’t go down, especially with O’Neill in charge.
I think all clubs like to pride themselves on quality of their support. Comparitively speaking, and as a neutral observer, how would you rate the Sunderland fans?
Mark: Sorry, but I couldn’t honestly say I would instantly think of Sunderland if asked to name a set of loud, passionate supporters. I can’t recall a particularly vociferous following at the Britannia and I’ve been slightly underwhelmed by the noise on my trips to the Stadium of Light. But then again, I’m a Stoke fan so it’s no surprise your fans haven’t been on their ‘A’ game!
Big thanks to Mark, and we'll be talking to him again in the build-up to the Stoke game, so watch out for that. But for those of you who can't wait that long, make sure you follow him on Twitter at @Homzy.