With ex Sunderland midfielder Graham Kavanagh in charge of Carlisle United these days, it seems apt to start with him; how well has he done since taking over?
Jon Colman: The League table says he has certainly improved things - Carlisle had a wretched start to the season and looked like relegation fodder through August. But Kavanagh has put enough points on the table to get the team up to 15th, albeit in a tightly-packed bottom half of the table. They are only three points above the drop zone, however, so there is plenty of work still to be done. He has been very busy in the transfer market since taking over and in general has scored more hits than misses with his recruits. In other areas, he has been more open and measured in his media dealings than his predecessor, is steadily trying to improve the team's style of play, is unafraid to change his team almost weekly (with mixed results) and has appointed his own youth team coach (ex-Middlesbrough winger Alan Moore). A lot will depend on the players he can attract, keep and move on in the January window - and on how he copes if an inconsistent team get sucked deeper into a survival struggle - but overall he has given some grounds for optimism.
The Cumbrians sit in the bottom half of League 1 at the moment. Is there a fear of relegation around the city?
JC: Carlisle are so inconsistent that fears seem to be allayed one week, only to return the next. Against Peterborough on December 29 they conjured an excellent victory, only to perform shabbily at Crewe on New Year's Day. Their home form is strong, and will need to remain so for the rest of the season, as they have not enjoyed an away victory since October. There seems to be enough quality in the side to avoid relegation but injuries and the loss of key loan players could have a damaging effect. By the end of January it should be easier to judge whether the team is equipped to ease into mid-table, or spend the spring fighting for survival.
Sunderland are in a relegation battle of their own, but have improved significantly since the arrival of Gus Poyet. Have you seen much of the side since his arrival? Any thoughts?
JC: Unfortunately not. I watched the 2-1 win against Newcastle but I guess that sort of occasion might not be the most measured guide to how they have played before or since. It does seem that Poyet has a huge job on his hands but, in the way he transformed Brighton at Carlisle's level, he appeared an imaginative, progressive coach with an eye for the bigger picture. Of course the Premier League is a much more challenging setting, and especially given the problems he inherited, but I would expect him to implement some better things in his time at Sunderland.
Another ex Sunderland man, Liam Noble, has had plenty to say for himself about the club since leaving, winding supporters up in the process. Is he likely to feature on Sunday? Putting the controversy to one side, what is he like as a player?
JC: There will be few players in the Carlisle ranks anticipating this tie more greatly than Noble. He recently had a spell out of the side but has since returned, looks certain to play on Sunday. On his day Noble can turn a game - he is eager to have the ball, likes to see an early pass and, if he connects well from 25 yards, is capable of spectacular goals. In the tackle he is not shy, likewise in his willingness to argue with and nibble at opponents. A bit of conflict certainly seems to get his motor running. On his less impressive days, manager Kavanagh has questioned his game "intelligence" and asked him to be more thoughtful and measured with his runs and pressing in midfield. Discipline will be paramount on Sunday. I imagine Kavanagh will be drumming this into Noble before the game, ensuring he is not bubbling over too much. If he scores, don't expect a modest celebration.
Despite the gulf between the two divisions, is there anyone else in the Carlisle squad Sunderland should be wary of?
JC: Matty Robson is a consistent performer and if Carlisle can get onto the front foot for periods of the game, his pace down the left is likely to be influential. David Amoo is the top scorer with 10 goals and, if all his attributes come together on the day, he has the ability to trouble defences. Up front Lee Miller will try and unsettle centre-halves but will need support from wide and behind. Another name to look out for is Courtney Meppen-Walter, the former Manchester City and England youth defender who recently signed for Carlisle after his release from prison, where he served time for causing death by careless driving. So far the 19-year-old has handled himself well on and off the pitch and has shown some of his considerable potential. Given Carlisle's injuries, including the sad absence of captain and Sunderland alumnus Paul Thirlwell, it seems likely he will start this Sunday - a big test of his nerve.
Poyet has taken the League Cup seriously since taking over and we have a semi final with Manchester United just two days after the game with Carlisle. It's likely Poyet will want to do well in the FA Cup too, but there is a chance he will make a number of changes to his side. Still, there must be plenty to fear for Carlisle; does anyone in particular stand out from the Sunderland side?
JC: It is a great shame for Carlisle's fans that Keiren Westwood is injured - he is hugely popular and would have relished a great reception from the travelling fans. Otherwise it is difficult to second-guess Poyet's selections but if the likes of Fletcher and Johnson are on the pitch, Carlisle will expect the toughest possible tie. The prospect of Cattermole and Noble meeting in a 50-50 challenge, meanwhile, isn't one for the faint-hearted.
This is not the first time Sunderland have played a Cumbrian side in the FA Cup at the Stadium of Light, having knocked out Barrow in 2010. It should be a similarly excellent atmosphere this Sunday, with Carlisle bringing plenty of support to Wearside. Is there any disappointment a bigger allocation hasn't been given?
JC: There has been disappointment that Carlisle have been limited to 5,500 - those were sold out pretty quickly and there is no doubt more would have been snapped up. In the circumstances it would be a crying shame if there are rows of empty seats on Sunday. The FA Cup has enough challenges these days without encouraging absenteeism. This said, the travelling support who do make it to the Stadium of Light will be vibrant and vocal. It's just a shame there won't be more of them.
Finally, a prediction please?
JC: Carlisle's injury concerns make me a little less confident of an upset, but it would not be the first time they have risen to the occasion, so I will go for a repeat of 1994 and 1995, and plump for a 1-1 draw. The equaliser naturally coming off Noble's backside.
Thanks to Jon for providing some much needed insight into Carlisle United. Check out his Twitter account @joncolman and read his reports on the Cumbrians at the News & Star website.