I was due to enjoy a rare break from Roker Report this week but with a visit to the Hawthorns approaching I just couldn't resist the opportunity to have a chat with big Baggies fan Simon Wilkes about this weekend's game.
Not only is Simon the Editor of top footy site TEAMtalk but he is also a children’s author, having written Robbie and the Red Robots, so we couldn't be happier to have him on board to talk us through all things West Bromwich Albion.
WBA's home form was the solid foundation upon which Premier League status was retained last term, yet this season the Baggies seem to be really struggling at the Hawthorns. What has been responsible for such a drastic change?
Simon: Roy Hodgson can't really take all the credit for last season's home form as he only took the reins from Roberto Di Matteo after Christmas. It's hard to pinpoint as Fulham were rock-solid at home and flaky on the road under Hodgson, whereas we wilt under the Hawthorns atmosphere and seem to relish the pressure-free environment of an away game.
I actually think Hodgson is a defensive-first coach who likes to keep it tight and break on the counter-attack, which is one of the reasons it didn't work for him at Liverpool, who are expected to be the aggressors and push for goals in every game they play. This is fine for away games, when visitors are expected to sit back and soak up pressure, but the tactics need tweaking for home games - and it has now become a real issue for the players, who look nervous on home soil before a ball has even been kicked.
Under previous managers, WBA have been known for attractive and expansive passing football. Although very technically gifted players such as Chris Brunt and James Morrison remain important figures in the squad, WBA appear to have adopted a more pragmatic approach under Hodgson. How has that change in philosophy been received by the fans?
Simon: First and foremost football fans want their team to win, so philosophy sometimes takes a back seat if results are going OK. West Ham fans, for example, bemoaned the appointment of Big Sam Allardyce - but you don't hear too many of them complaining right now. Their football isn't pretty to watch but it's effective and will get them promotion, which is ALL that matters.
Albion played flowing football under both Tony Mowbray and Di Matteo in recent seasons - but remember it's not that long ago that the Ginger Mourinho, Gary Megson, was in charge - and I remember loving the feeling that we'd won the game if we went 1-0 up in our promotion season, when Russell Hoult, 'Big Dave' Darren Moore and co were racking up clean sheets week after week.
Hodgson's team lands somewhere between the two philosophies - but I personally feel sick as a dog when a team scores against us, so I'm happy for us to set out to be a hard nut to crack.
Unfortunately, Sunderland fans know a thing or two about 5-1 derby thrashings. What impact, if any, do you see WBA's incredible demolition of Wolves having on this weekend's game?
Simon: Strangely enough, I can't see it affecting our home form or confidence levels at The Hawthorns sadly - it will have purely fuelled the feeling that we're much more of threat on our travels this season.
It was great to see Peter Odemwingie getting back in the goals groove as he's a big player for us - but I genuinely think we'll revert to being quite nervous on the ball, and unless we get an early goal that settles the players' nerves, I can see Sunderland taking all three points back to the North-East with them.
That win at Molineux must have ended any worries of relegation this term, surely? Would mere Premier League consolidation represent a good season for the Baggies or did you enter the season with loftier goals?
Simon: Last season's 11th-placed finish was a staggering achievement for the team considering where we were when Hodgson took charge, but most fans kept their feet on the ground and realise that while Jeremy Peace is in charge, we'll always start the season with survival as our number-one target, perhaps targeting a cup run too. We bought Shane Long from Reading and re-signed Zoltan Gera, but like to run a tight financial ship and will always do so under Peace, so set our expectations adjustingly.
When I spent a little time on the TEAMtalk desk in January, the prevalent opinion seemed to be that Martin O'Neill was just as much of a lucky manager as he was a good one. Has anything that happened since changed that view and what do you think about his impact as a whole?
Simon: Yeah, it's fair to say we were all on the wind-up with you on that. Martin O'Neill is a fantastic manager with a quite stunning track record. I've organised a 'TEAMtalk Meets...' interview with a chap called Mark Sheasby, who is a sports mind coach who works with professional footballers, rugby players and cricketers on maximising their mindset to achieve their full potential and talent.
He's not a sports psychologist, rather someone who encourages sports people to believe in themselves - and he said that O'Neill is an absolute master of using the right language both with his players and in the media.
It sounds a bit flimsy but there must be something in it, as O'Neill has transformed the exact same players that were under-performing for Steve Bruce, having only added James McClean as a new face to the team. Mark was also full of praise for the way Alan Pardew keeps his players motivated - and as Tiger Woods showed in recent times, mental strength is a major part of sport, with his game falling to pieces once his mind couldn't stay focused on playing golf.
The big Sunderland news this week was Niall Quinn ending his association with the club. What did you make of his time at Sunderland?
Simon: Well for a start he's got quite possibly the greatest football chant of all-time named after him. I first heard the Niall Quinn's disco pants song at the Stadium of Light when I came up with Albion during the Peter Reid era, when Kevin Phillips and Quinn ran us ragged in a 3-0 defeat - and have loved it ever since.
I only like to use the word 'legend' sparingly - but it's perfectly applicable when talking about Quinn's impact at Sunderland, as a player and a chairman (maybe not so much as a manager ;)
They've come a long way thanks to his guidance and support - and his legacy will be luring O'Neill to the club as he can take them to the next level with the right financial backing.
Looking forward to the game, what should Sunderland be worried about? Where do you see WBA winning it?
Simon: Marc-Antoine Fortune has been a real handful in recent weeks, and with Odemwingie still buzzing about his derby hat-trick, we're always a goal threat, with Jerome Thomas our most dangerous attacking threat. I really think we need to be bold from the start and attempt to get some early goals, as if it's level heading into the last half-hour, the nerves will start to jangle.
James Morrison is a threat from long range and might put a little extra effort in due to his Middlesbrough connections. He's always good value as an any-time scorer.
And what, or who, in the Sunderland side do you see as the biggest threat to the Baggies?
Simon: Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley are a powerful centre-half combination - but they're not the quickest, so I think Sessegnon will scare the living daylights out of us. If we can somehow keep him quiet, we've got McClean to deal with, so I'd play Billy Jones at right-back to deal with his pace.
It's well-known that Craig Gardner is hugely admired by Hodgson, and I'm a fan of him too - then there's Larsson and his set-pieces! Plenty for Hodgson to prepare for.
Finally, to put you on the spot, what is your prediction for the game?
Simon: I'm quite a realistic Albion fan, rather than a blindly optimistic one, and honestly think it'll be 1-3 to the Black Cats. 1-1 at half-time and two second-half goals for your boys.
We'd obviously like to extend our thanks to Simon for his time. If you haven't already, now would be a good time to make TEAMtalk (@TEAMtalk for those Twitter inclined) an essential part of your football bookmarks. The parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts amongst you should also be sure to check out Simon's budding literary exploits at http://www.robbieandtheredrobots.com. It is a gift that is guaranteed to make you Mr or Ms Popular!
Simon himself can be found on Twitter, too, if you fancy a follow.