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INTERVIEW: George Caulkin From 'The Times'

It's not often I'll blow smoke up someone's arse but when it comes to George Caulkin I believe he is without a doubt the best sport writer covering North East football right now, so any chance Roker Report get to have a chat with him is a fantastic opportunity to pick his brain. With just under half a season left to play @GRokerReport caught up with George to get his thoughts on what lies ahead for Sunderland AFC.

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What are your thoughts on Sunderland’s season so far?

Pretty much the same thoughts that I had last season and the season before (ad infinitum): that it hasn't been very good, coupled with a sense of impending doom.

When Sunderland started the season with Dick Advocaat in charge and with the likes of Jeremain Lens and Yann M’Vila on board – unquestionably two quality acquisitions – did you foresee that the wheels would fall off rather quickly with big Dick?

No, I thought he would stick around for the whole season. It was a pretty limited, short-term brief - use his experience to steer Sunderland through a testing and vital few months and then play a role in determining what happens next. All thoughts about vision and identity were put on hold (remember when Lee Congerton spoke about playing with a Spanish style and a British heart, a system he wanted to endure when Gus Poyet inevitably left for 'bigger' things? Didn't last very long did it?), because the only thing that mattered was staying up. That was fairly depressing in its own way. But Lens and M'Vila were never enough. The quality of the squad hasn't been there, season after dispiriting season. I was surprised Advocaat left, but not about the reasons for it.

I’ve always wanted to know this – what is the worst aspect of being a football reporter?

I get paid to watch football matches, chat to players and managers and travel around the world. There isn't much of a downside to that. It can be tiring, the working hours aren't very conducive to having a rich social or family life and, in North East terms, there is a fair bit of negativity to deal with. I wonder sometimes if that rubs off on the soul, but I wouldn't swap it. One thing I miss is watching as a fan; losing myself in those moments of brilliance or passion or joy or anger. I try to get to non-league games when I can and reconnect with football as a supporter. I love those days.

Do you think that Sam Allardyce will keep Sunderland up, or is the task too big for even him?

I hope so and I think they've got the right man for the job - the fit feels much more comfortable than when he was at Newcastle - but whether he'll succeed or not is another matter. It isn't a coincidence that Sunderland are where they are; it's a consequence of laying bad decisions on top of other bad decisions. You can't build anything on quicksand foundations. But I spent a day at the training ground the other week to interview Sam and his back-room staff, and it was reassuring to see the scientific and technological advances being put in place. He's always been at the cutting edge of that kind of stuff and Sunderland need it. They need to focus on all those little details that can bring improvement over the medium and long-term. If he can keep the club up - it's still a big if - there's reason for mild optimism.

How does Sam rank when it comes to other Sunderland managers you’ve dealt with in the past? I have to admit, I love hearing his press conferences.

To be frank, I was dreading his arrival a bit. His time at Newcastle wasn't much fun. It felt sour and uneasy from the start and that was certainly reflected in his relationship with journalists. I asked him about that in the piece I did with him and thought his answer was interesting: "Because of the change of ownership, I was lost. I didn’t know where to go, how to go about what I needed to do. I was lost in the wilderness of the takeover. The plan went out of the window. I was in survival mode." There hasn't been a hint of that at Sunderland - it probably helps that his appointment was a popular one and that he has a history with the club - and his press conferences have been newsy, funny and good-natured. He says himself that he's a 'Marmite' sort of person and he can come across as arrogant and old-school, but there's more to him than that. It's been nice to discover that he's good company.

Sam has stated recently that he feels there should be a winter break for the Premier League – what are your thoughts on that subject?

I'm a traditionalist, but as long as we protected the Christmas fixtures, I'd be open to it. I don't know if it's age, but football does feel increasingly relentless, that long slog through December immediately followed by the transfer window. Yeah, let's all have a fortnight off and sit in the sun. Your treat.

You’re fairly impartial when it comes to the North East sides – just what on earth do Sunderland have over Newcastle when it comes to a derby day?

I don't think a single, simple reason can encapsulate everything and you have to allow for quirks, luck and variations, but Newcastle have definitely suffered from a lack of leadership during this run. They've had some decent players but haven't been a team. Sunderland haven't had much quality, but they've had a sense of what the fixture means. And a good thing, too: those points have kept them up.

Last time Roker Report spoke to you we asked you to give us a reason to be positive – so, I ask the same again. What have Sunderland fans got to look forward to as we head towards the latter half of the season?

Christ. What did I say last time? Ummm. Well, I'm looking forward to seeing more of Jordan Pickford, a local talent who has the ability to become a genuine star. We all know that Sunderland have the capacity to get out of trouble, so I'm looking forward to their annual miracle. Jermaine Defoe's goals. What I'd like, more than anything, is for the Stadium of Light to become a cauldron again. The numbers who continue to turn up for such limited reward is always an inspiration - make them proud and make them a weapon, for heaven's sake.

If you were in charge of Sunderland, who would be your number one target in the January transfer window?

Honestly? I don't know. That's not meant to be a cop-out, I would just struggle to keep it down to one. Sunderland need quality right across the pitch. They need pace, they need goals, they need legs in defence, they need variation.

In your opinion, what do you think needs to change at Sunderland in order to stop being a club that struggles every season?

Let's leave the big one until last, eh? There is one big fundamental: they need to recruit better players. That aspect of the club simply hasn't been good enough, but it's been exacerbated by the constant churn of head coaches, managers, directors of football and sporting directors because the new men have their own ideas and in turn, that has led to a cycle of mediocre, half-baked signings. If Sunderland's situation wasn't so precarious it would be humiliating; abandoning the traditional manager model (Bruce, O'Neill) and now returning to it (Allardyce). If they stay up, they need to decide what they want to be, what kind of club, what kind of team. What have they gained from this extended spell in the Premier League? What footprint have they left? Once they've decided who they are, they need to stick to it.

Thanks again to George for speaking with us - make sure you give him a follow on Twitter if you haven't already.

George is a patron of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation - visit www.justgiving.com/thesirbobbyrobsonfoundation to donate.