Ah it's time for Fan Focus, one of my favourite features on the site, and even despite it being FA Cup week we're still continuing it as contrary to opinion, there's some wonderfully written stuff outside the top flight too.
In the hotseat this week we have some great stuff provided by Anthony Vickers, writer of the superb "Untypical Boro" blog (link) for the Evening Gazette. If you're Twitter inclined, he's certainly worth a follow on @UntypicalBoro too.
Now prepare yourself for our top notch FA Cup, North East derby flavoured Q&A with one of 'Boro's best...Hi, your boys appear to be doing pretty well so far in the Championship, can you give us a summing up of the season so far? Is it exceeding expectation or below it etc...
Anthony: Boro are well ahead of where the vast majority of supporters expected them to be back in August. The summer had been spent trimming the wage bill with big earners Boyd and Lita out and only a couple of fringe free-transfers in that no-one had heard of. With a small squad and zero budget most on Teesside expected to bob around in mid-table at best and just staying away from the relegation places was seen as 'realistic.'
I was on the wild-eyed lunatic fringe because I always seriously expected Boro to be up in the play-off places. We had finished last season really well with a great run that including wins away at play-off contenders Hull and Cardiff to show that Mowbray's first choice team, organised and motivated could more than match the top teams in an average division full of limited and inconsistent teams. In that last 12 or so games Boro had shown they had found a bit of steel and could mix it with the bruisers like Portsmouth and Millwall plus they had pace and suddenly started to score. I though we'd do well.
That continued into this season with the best start in a century (11 unbeaten and a club record six away wins on the bounce, five clean sheets in the first seven games). The team were confident, strong at the back and dangerous on the counter-attack and that raised expectations dramatically to the point where they were booed off after only drawing with Peterborough at home at the end of December when two points off the top.
I think the expectation now among a lot of supporters is that anything short of the play-offs would be a disaster. Ironically the biggest complaints are coming from the congenital pessimists who back in August expected a relegation battle.
Barring the FA Cup game though you're yet to win in 2012. Is it cause for alarm and a sign of a bigger problem or a slight blip, nothing to be concerned about?
Anthony: We always knew there would be a wobble at some stage, its that kind of division. We always knew that there would be a spell where injuries and suspensions bit into a small squad and that beyond the first 11 or 14 players there was very little in reserve. And Boro are always poor in January. So in that respect I don't think it is a total shock that we have hit a sticky patch.
What is a worry is that the absence of one player - Nicky Bailey - has had such a major effect. He has played a deep midfield holding role shielding the back four, breaking up opposition attacks and been superb. For me, easily Boro's best player this past year and certainly the most improved under Mowbray. Without him the defence has come under a lot more pressure and has started to spring leaks. Since he limped off Boro have lost three league games, leaked eight goals and scored just one. Even the cup win over Shrewsbury was very hard work. That has forced Mowbray to tinker with shapes and personnel and we have struggled to find a rhythm.
There's not long left of January now, are you looking to make any more signings, and is there anyone you in particular think the club should be looking at?
Anthony: There's no money left after signing Jutkiewicz - who was Mowbray's number one target - so I can't see any signings unless they are loan deals or funded by shuffling one of the big earners off the wage bill. We still have a few players who are earning three or four times the Championship average for their position and if he could move one out, say Stephen McManus or Scott McDonald - easier said than done at this level given the money they are on - then that would free up cash to bring in another. We need specialists on both flanks. And probably a battle-hardened central defender. And another striker. Plus someone to replace whoever leaves. Perm any two from five.
If you are asking for individuals then for me another striker is key. The best I've seen against Boro this season and who adds something we don't have - power, physicality, a presence in the box, a bit of experience - is Lomano Lualua at Blackpool. I'd have him in a flash.
On loans, Mowbray has made it clear he doesn't want some Premier league rookie reserve, he wants someone who can go into the first team and there are not many available unless Boro will pay all/most of the wages and he can't really afford that.
I know he's suspended for the game, but how's our little Julio getting on at the ‘Boro?
Anthony: I think it is fair to say he divides opinion. He was the Player of the Year last season after a really good spell of calm passing in a central play-making role as we finished the season with a flourish. He is one of the few genuinely creative players who can craft an excellent ball under pressure and he shines in a five when there are a few others around him to do the running. I think most people accept that. And most people accept he is a lovely bloke.
But you can still sense an under-current of hostility towards him as well. Not because he "was a Mackem," more than he was part of the Southgate team that got relegated and was generally physically and mentally weak. There is a perception that he has never really done it here, that he has always been a fringe player, that he has had a fortune out of the club in a period of failure and that he is only in the team now because all the good ones bailed out.
He finished last season well and the general opinion was that signing him up again on vastly reduced money was a good move but then he had an operation in the summer and has never really got back to his best this season. And when he has a couple of indifferent games the hostility quickly comes to the surface. The reckless tackle and cheap stoppage time sending off at Coventry hasn't helped so at the minute he is one of the boo-boys.
Aside from him however, the names and faces have changed somewhat since we last met. Who should we be on guard against and might give us problems?
Anthony: Boro are off colour at the moment but if it clicks the pace and trickery of Marvin Emnes could hurt. On his good days he can be a handful, he drifts wide to give an outlet then wriggles towards the box. He wins a lot of free-kicks in dangerous areas. The new boy Lukas Jutkiewicz is an unknown quantity but he is a big lad, quite physical and good in the air so he will give us an added dimension. And Barry Robson surges and stomps and and seeths Scottishly all around the pitch and makes things happen and we are all looking forward to him meeting Lee Cattermole.
Is there a weakness in the ‘Boro team we could exploit, and is there any Sunderland player you think could wreak havoc?
Anthony: Your new boy McLean looks a handful but I think we all have our daft quid on Cattermole wreaking havoc, either scoring a worldy or seeing red.
Is the cup something ‘Boro will be looking for a good run in, or would you rather focus on the league?
Anthony: Had we still been flying in the league then I personally I would have seen the cup as a unnecessary diversion. The league has to be the priority and we haven't got enough bodies for Championship matches to pile up in midweek later on during a run-in, especially if there are replays. But the recent slump in the league has put a different slant on it, now it is a great chance for a morale-boosting moment that could galvanise the season again.
The game being against the neighbours has complicated things too. Had it been away to another middling Premier League side, Bolton or Stoke say, there would have been a groan, a shrug of the shoulders and we would just want it out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. Probably you would too. Now it has to be taken seriously.
One talking point on Wearside is that the game isn't a ‘derby' as many of the national press outlets seem to suggest. In your eyes, is it a derby? And what makes you think that...
Anthony: For a lot of people whether or not it is a derby will be decided retrospectively depending on the result.
For me it is a derby. Or it is now now. I don't think it was in the distant past when Middlesbrough was most definitely in Yorkshire. I grew up with Leeds being the big neighbours and the weak willed glory-hunters crutch of choice and then that was the only game that really mattered in the playground. We had Yorkshire TV! But at some point in the early 70s we were shunted culturally and politically 30 miles north indisputably into Tyne Tees territory and the balance changed. I think now on Teesside this game and the Newcastle game are the only ones that count.
Much of the diehard Boro fanbase lives in Stockton and Billingham and beyond and maybe they have always looked north more historically so they will feel that more acutely, but social mobility and equal opportunities legislation means we all have Geordies and Mackems in the workplace so the ritual banter and sharp sense of exactly which buttons to press to rile rivals (crowds, delusion, 15 points, last cup win shown live on Pathe News etc). All these things mark these games out as de facto derbies.
For a lot of Sunderland fans it "isn't a derby" for you - but only because you have Newcastle in the same division at the minute. In every other respect it is. And it is certainly policed like a derby.
Lastly, can you give us a prediction for the game? Scores, scorers and anything else you'd like to add...
Anthony: Sunderland 1 (Cattermole) Boro 1 (Jutkiewicz). Catts and Robbo to be sent off in a Krakatoan explosion of rage.