Sunderland’s Stadium of Light celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend. To mark the ground’s birthday, Sunderland play host to Scottish champions Celtic in a pre-season friendly tomorrow.
8,000 Celtic fans are expected on Wearside in the first mass influx of Glaswegians in the stadium’s history. Not since Gary Bennett’s testimonial in 1993, has Sunderland anticipated so many folks from the capital* of Scotland.
But the Mackems and the Bhoys have a traditional good-humoured relationship and the day out should be an entertaining spectacle.
We spoke to John Reid of Celtic website The Jersey Doesn’t Shrink to find out what to expect from Brendan Rodger’s side and the travelling green-and-white Celtic army.
Whilst this game is a pre-season friendly, we are marking twenty years at the Stadium of Light as the occasion. Sunderland and Celtic will also competing for the ‘Dafabet Cup’, if you didn’t know. Do you think that Rodgers will take this fixture seriously?
I think we might use the match to get some players match fit ahead of our game against Rosenborg on Wednesday and whilst I imagine it will mostly be squad players starting, it will be taken relatively seriously.
Sunderland have just signed Celtic old boy Aiden McGeady. What are memories of him and do you think he’ll be a success on Wearside?
Aiden was a very good player for Celtic. He broke into the side at 17, and was our main creative outlet for a good few years, winning trophies and personal awards galore. He had a very good season for Preston last year and if he applies himself similarly this season he should do very well.
You’ve also got former Sunderland ‘keeper Craig Gordon between the sticks these days. Gordon was released by our club after some serious injury problems but he’s since been able to recover and has been number one at Celtic for a few years now. What are your thoughts on him and does his brand of goalkeeping suit the style that Rodgers likes to play?
In the main Craig has done very well for us, especially when you consider his injury problems, indeed he was man of the match against Rosenborg in our last game. He sometimes struggles with the odd pass back but in general he suits Rodgers’ playing style.
Some amongst the Sunderland community are slightly worried that, due to the large travelling contingent coming down from Scotland, there could be a bit of bother this weekend - with memories of the time Rangers came to Roker Park for Gary Bennett’s testimonial. Do Celtic fans generally behave themselves when they leave the country?
We don't generally cause trouble to be honest, as the amount of testimonial games we've played attests. It should be a loud and colourful travelling support.
How much of a challenge do you think Celtic will pose to a Sunderland side that are very much still getting know each other?
We should be good enough to give Sunderland a competitive game despite our injury problems and I would have us as slight favourites.
Who in Celtic’s side do you think will cause us the most problems?
Scott Sinclair if he plays, he is probably our best player at the moment. I'm a big fan of Australian playmaker Tom Rogic, he is the most skillful player in Scottish football.
And, in turn, which Sunderland players do you think could cause Celtic issues?
Aside from the aforementioned Aiden McGeady, Jeremain Lens looks to be a good player.
How do you think that the game will play out?
2-1 to Celtic in a game that's competitive for at least an hour before the inevitable substitutions ruin it.
There have been calls from some sections of football fans over the years for the inclusion of teams that dominate the other domestic leagues in the British Isles, like Celtic, to be incorporated into the English Football Leagues. Where do you stand on this? Do you think it's a romantic pipe dream or a viable option to increase the global standing of teams like Celtic?
It would be great for Celtic and certainly make us a lot of money - far more than we currently make - but it's as you say a pipe dream. Maybe in the days before the newer TV contracts it could have happened but that ship has long since sailed.
Do you feel Celtic compete in the European tournaments and that your owner and board are prepared to back a serious campaign to win a trophy over there, or is it considered by Celtic fans to be something they aren't aiming for, just another throwaway tournament?
The aim every season to be honest is just to qualify for the Champions League, and once we get there we can perhaps finish third and get Europa League football with a favourable draw. We've never really spent huge money, we prefer to buy a player for relatively cheap and sell for big money, as we've done with Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk, and I can't see that policy changing any time soon.
Dembele is a young man with an incredible reputation, do you think enough is being done to recognise talent at that age and blood them in competitive games? Have Celtic been lucky there or does your scouting system have a remit to focus on youth, do they promote young players in a fashion that's perhaps more progressive than other clubs?
We got lucky with Dembele, as we were able to get him for relatively cheap and it was a great bit of scouting by the club.
Being a young player at Celtic is very difficult, first of all you are always hyped up by the fans and press and secondly the pressure is on to win every game, if we draw a game it turns into a crisis and sometimes it's best to take younger homegrown players out of the firing line. I think those might be reasons why we seem to bring in young players from abroad rather than through the youth ranks, the homegrown players will only succeed if they are exceptional, like Kieran Tierney.