Sunderland have a big week ahead of them, one that threatens to test Jack Ross’ squad to its fullest. Two cup ties, both against League Two opposition, are quickly followed by a return to league action against mid-table Wycombe Wanderers during the international weekend.
Having seen the trip to Blackppol postponed during the last international break, Sunderland have already indicated that the fixture will go ahead despite any call ups received by first team players.
Whilst every good coach indicates that the next game is the focus, Jack Ross will surely be casting his eye over the next seven days and plotting a course to maintain Sunderland’s current run of form. Six wins on the trot could turn into nine by this time next week, and Ross will need to call on the full strength of his squad, starting at Vale Park today.
The Gaffer says...
I think it goes without saying that our main priority is obviously to achieve promotion and return to the Championship. But it’s a tournament that not only should retain its traditional values of how attractive it is to progress in it, but I know that Charlie has spoken this week about how it can benefit us financially.
So, there are a whole number of reasons why we want to progress in the competition and when you add in the form we’re in at the moment and wanting to continue that momentum of winning games means that it’s just as important a game on Sunday as any league game we’ve had recently.
It’s relatively straight forward because I don’t view this weekend’s game as being any different to a normal league fixture. It falls on a weekend and you’ve had a rest period. I don’t look at our preparation or our plans being any different than they would be if we were playing a league match this weekend.
I don’t think the challenge for us playing Port Vale is much different from the challenges we face away from home every week in the league. Sunday will be exactly the same away from home against a team that will be determined to try and beat us and take us as a scalp.
It’s just different opposition, but in terms of our preparation, it’s been absolutely in-line and as consistent as it has been for each and every league game this season.
Sunderland and Port Vale was a regular league fixture for just over a decade, between 1987 and 1998. Sunderland took maximum points on six occasions, drawing seven times and losing only once.
In the FA Cup, the Black Cats and the Valiants have locked horns five times.
In 1936 a 2-2 draw at Sunderland saw Port Vale win the replay on home soil 2-0 two days later. History repeated itself in 1962, when a 0-0 draw on Wearside saw the tie replayed in the Potteries four days later when Vale again won by two goals, this time in a 3-1 win.
Having met in the 30s and the 60s it was not a surprise to see the two sides pitched together in a 90s cup-tie.
On the 4th January 1992, again drawn to play on Wearside, the two sides met at Roker Park for the FA Cup third round. Goals from Brian Atkinson and Peter Davenport were followed up by the obligatory John Byrne strike as Sunderland secured a 3-0 victory in front of 15,564.
Of course, John Byrne would go on to score in every round as Sunderland reached their last FA Cup final appearance in 1992 under the caretaker management of Malcolm Crosby.
Almost quarter of a century later, can Sunderland kick-off this year’s cup run in similar style?
The state of play...
League form can sometimes go out of the window when the FA Cup rolls in and perhaps the media are anticipating an upset, with the TV cameras covering this cup-tie today.
Sunderland have won six on the trot, in all competitions, since the 2-2 draw with Peterborough at the start of October. Four consecutive clean sheets has built further confidence, whilst we have scored in every game we’ve played this season.
Port Vale come into the game on the back of a five-game unbeaten run, having won three times in that spell, including a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough’s U21 side in the Checkatrade Trophy. Vale also beat Burton Albion 1-0 in the same competition during October, so will be looking to maintain their very decent cup form.
Now that Jon McLaughlin won’t be going to join Scotland on international duty, he’s available for selection and likely to start this afternoon at Vale Park.
Similarly, Max Power is in contention for a starting place today. The former Wigan man has completed his suspension and remained sharp through training and a behind-closed-doors game this week. Whilst Duncan Watmore also took part, the youngster remains some way from resuming his first team career.
Glenn Loovens has similarly been in training for the past few weeks and travelled with the squad for last weekend’s league game at Plymouth. Whilst not being involved last week, the impending loss of Tom Flanagan to international duty would suggest that the former Sheffield Wednesday captain needs game time ahead of the Wycombe game. Today’s cup-tie provides the perfect opportunity for him to become re-acquainted with Jack Baldwin.
Elsewhere, Lee Cattermole has been nursing a foot injury since the Shrewsbury game and missed the Plymouth game as a result. Earlier this week Jack Ross confirmed that Cattermole remained a doubt for today’s cup-tie. Bryan Oviedo also missed the trip last Saturday with a calf strain and may not be risked today. With the Checkatrade Trophy resuming on Tuesday, both players will have an opportunity to get game time ahead of Wycombe’s visit to the Stadium of Light next Saturday.
Big decisions will surround the likes of Luke O’Nien, Bali Mumba and Jerome Sinclair who may well be given game time and allow George Honeyman, Aiden McGeady and Josh Maja further rest time during the cup-ties this week. The likelihood today is that Ross will keep changes to a minimum today in an attempt to progress into round two and maintain the winning momentum this team has created in the past month.
Five games unbeaten and four clean-sheets in that run suggest Port Vale won’t be easy opponents today, and they will look to use home advantage to put Sunderland under pressure.
Operating with wing-backs, Vale have largely played a 3-4-3 but changed that to 3-5-2 against Notts County last weekend, as Luke Hannant dropped back into central midfield and Ben Whitfield was given more licence to stay forward alongside Tom Pope.
The wing-back system has helped manager Neil Aspin to build some defensive resilience - they hadn’t conceded a goal for six-and-a-half hours before Notts County scored last Saturday.
Aspin looks to play to the strengths of his players. Using a direct style and playing off Pope as as a focal point, Port Vale are heading in the right direction. Pope thrives on crosses and scored his 95th goal for Port Vale last weekend.
Whilst Aspin, a Leeds fan and former player, has spoken of his anticipation in meeting Sunderland in the FA Cup, assistant boss Lee Nogan has suggested the players should relish the challenge of taking on the biggest club in the first round draw:
It is a big game for everybody, especially the players.
They are a big club. It’s not so long ago they were in the Premier League. They have come down a few divisions and their confidence will be high because they are doing well in their league but I am sure they will be apprehensive coming here.
It’s not just one player, they have five, six or seven players who can hurt you so we have to try to nullify their threats, but basically we have to concentrate on what we are doing.
I think they would have to be slight favourites. They are near the top of their division, playing some good football and undefeated (in six) so it is going to be difficult, but it is a one off game, a cup tie. There will be a good atmosphere here and hopefully the players will thrive off it.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
The game is live on BT Sport this afternoon, with kick-off at 2:30pm.
Audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 2pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website.
We’ll also be providing live commentary via our Twitter page and, after the game, there’ll be a match report and player ratings article on the site - so keep an eye out for that.