When Martin O'Neill took over, Stoke were 9 places and 7 points ahead of Sunderland, yet go into this weekend's game looking up the table at their visitors after a little spell of stuttering form. Given their home Premier League record against us, though, they must surely be fancying their chances of playing the party (with Marty) poopers?
Lets find out.
Stoke are enjoying something of a historic season this year with a dream Europa match on the horizon against Valencia. Can you give us a brief summary of the season so far?
Mark: To be in the top half of the Premier League and still in the Europa League and FA Cup at the start of February is fantastic, but we've still had our fair share of ups and downs. The whole European campaign classes as one huge 'up' but I've just looked at our results in the Premier League and can honestly only pick out two or three games in which I think we played at or close to our best.
We’ve even been poor in a couple of the games we’ve won, but then they do say that’s the sign of a good team! On the whole we’re having a great season but take away Europe and the FA Cup and you might start to hear a few groans of discontent from the Stoke fans.
This season has seen an improvement in fortune away from home but the Britannia Stadium doesn't quite seem to be the fortress it once was. Can you put your finger on why that is?
Mark: I don’t think we’ve done anything particularly different away from home to be honest. I certainly wouldn’t say we’ve found the ‘formula’ for away success and I simply can’t give you an answer as to why we’ve won four games. Tony Pulis will say it’s down to us being more solid – Jermaine Pennant has tended to be left out – but most Stoke fans will tell you they’d like to see us attack far more.
As for our home form, it was excellent in the early part of the season but then Newcastle beat us at a canter and other teams have started to copy their approach. Simply put, we lack the ability to break down teams that set up to defend.
Late deadline day drama at Stoke has been a staple of recent years, yet the January window this year was eerily quiet. What can we read into that?
Mark: I never expected us to sign anyone in January, simply because we didn’t really need to. The winter transfer window is for those that need to solve problems and, despite everything I’ve said, we’ve got the tools at our disposal to carry on doing well.
Kenwyne Jones seems to have fallen down the pecking order at Stoke of late. What has gone wrong for Jones down there?
Mark: Peter Crouch has arrived! That is the sole reason for him falling out of favour and I’m certain he’d still be playing most weeks if Crouch hadn’t been signed. He’d started the season well too but he’ll never be first choice now, which probably points to him leaving in the summer.
You upset quite a lot of Sunderland fans in the summer by tipping the club to have a poor start and Bruce to be the first manager to go, but that prediction bordered on the prophetic. What have you made of Sunderland's season to date?
Mark: I’m glad you mentioned that! A lot of journalists were tipping you for big things in the summer but I’ve always followed Sunderland quite closely and could see, as all you Mackems no doubt could, that Bruce had STILL left gaps in the squad despite signing 11 players. I just don’t rate him as a manager and think he should take a large, large share of the blame for your poor start.
On the other hand, I really rate Martin O’Neill as a manager and haven’t been in the slightest bit surprised by your upturn in form. You’re still short up front but at least you’ve got a left-back now, and more importantly you have a manager that has you playing in a clear style which the players understand. As I mentioned in Dropping the Gloves, I always thought one of your biggest problems under Bruce was that the team lacked an identity.
Looking forward to the game, where do you see Stoke really hurting Sunderland this weekend?
Mark: I’d like to see Jermaine Pennant start against Wayne Bridge but, other than that, I think Sunderland should be fairly well equipped to deal with Stoke now. O’Neill knows how to organise a defence and I can’t see us having as much joy with high balls as we usually do against you. I hope, therefore, to see us utilise the pace of Matthew Etherington and hopefully Cameron Jerome.
And what, or who, in the Sunderland side do you see as the biggest threat to Stoke?
Mark: I think Stephane Sessegnon is your best player by a distance so I’m hoping there’s someone assigned to man-mark him. Aside from Sessegnon I’m not wary of any one player in particular so I can see the two sides cancelling each other out.
There seems to be a great number of parallels between the two clubs. Both came up at similar times, both have spent ambitiously, and both have carved out a very respectable place in the Premier League for themselves. Who do you fancy to edge it in terms of league position come May?
Mark: My heart says Stoke, but my head says Sunderland and that won’t bother me as long as we go a bit further in the two cups. But drop out of those any time soon and I think anything lower than eighth for us would have to count as an under-achievement.
And finally, can we coax a prediction for the game out of you?
Mark: I’d go for 1-1 if I was a neutral but I’m not, so I’ll go 2-1 to Stoke. We probably need the win more than yourselves so I’m hoping that’ll work in our favour.
Thanks again to Mark. For those Twitter-inclined, he can be found at @Homzy.