Jack Ross has been boosted this week by both a largely second-string victory in the Checkatrade Trophy and the early return of key players from international duty.
Ross will have noted the progress of a number of fringe players and Academy stars in midweek before being in the enviable position of naming an unchanged league squad for today’s game.
There may be one or two selection decisions to make, but Ross will be confident that Sunderland can secure the three points today to take them to the summit of League One. In our way sit a Wycombe side, newly promoted but making a strong push for league consolidation under Gareth Ainsworth.
Wycombe have sold close to 750 tickets for their first ever visit to the Stadium of Light, although more are expected to travel with tickets available on the door today. Stewart Donald announced on Twitter that they’re expecting over 30,000 people to be in attendance once again - a thoroughly decent crowd for a game that comes around less than a month from Christmas.
The Gaffer says...
Our form over the course of the whole season has been relatively good. To only have suffered one defeat in the league up until this point is satisfactory and has given us a good platform for the remainder of the season.
Although they’ve been spread across three competitions, I think to have eight consecutive wins is testament to how the players feel about themselves and as a squad at the moment and naturally, you want to try and continue that for as long as you can.
I think [being top of the league] is where we want to be.
I’ve never shied away from that, but it would be another step forward for us to get there. We haven’t been there to date this season, it’s where we want to try and get to and remain there.
Psychologically, I think it would be another good reward for the players if they could get to that position.
Every game has been ridiculously difficult for us this season, home and away. Every team that has come to the Stadium of Light has responded to the environment and I would expect Wycombe to do the same on Saturday.
I’m acutely aware of [Gareth Ainsworth’s] success and how well he’s done with Wycombe. To have them promoted to League One and then to stabilise them there - I know the strengths they have as a team in terms of the energy they play with and we know, like every game, that we have to play well to win it.
Represented both sides...
These two sides meet for the first time in their histories today, so we are unable to bring you a Head-to-Head analysis this week. However, we have seen a few players represent both sides down the years.
Midfielder John Cornforth began his career on Wearside, but made only 32 appearances during a six-year spell at the club. Loaned out three times, Cornforth signed for Swansea in 1991. Five years later, and just shy of 150 appearances for the Welsh club, Cornforth moved to Birmingham City for a short spell before signing for Wycombe Wanderers later that year. He spent three years with today’s opponents, making 47 appearances for the Choirboys.
Former Sunderland left-back Paul Hardyman also played for both sides. Hardyman will be remembered for his part in the 1990 play-off game with Newcastle, where he clattered into Magpie keeper John Burridge after his penalty was saved. Hardyman was also a substitute in the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 1992. Later in his career, he spent a season at Wycombe from 1995-96.
More recently, two Sunderland Academy players Louis Laing and Billy Knott have swapped Wearside for Wycombe during loan spells. Laing, now at Blyth Spartans, played 11 times for the Choirboys 2012, whilst Knott wore Wycombe colours 17 times during the 2013-14 season.
Current Sunderland midfielder Luke O’Nien moved in the other direction this summer, whilst former Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill was the man to steer Wycombe into the Football League, winning successive promotions and two FA Trophy victories in the early 90s.
The state of play...
Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light this afternoon on the back of an eight-game winning run. In fact, The Lads haven’t lost for 11 games since suffering our only League One defeat at Burton Albion, back on September 15th.
Jack Ross’ side are the league’s second top scorers whilst boasting the tightest defence. A win today and Sunderland go top, as Portsmouth are without a fixture. Victory would also be the first time in 22-years that Sunderland have won nine successive matches, matching the run Peter Reid’s side had in Feb/March 1996.
Wycombe, however, will be no pushovers. The Chairboys have demonstrated their ability to punch above their weight with impressive displays at Bradford, Charlton and Portsmouth, whilst they secured victory over third-placed Peterborough at Adams Park a fortnight ago. However, their away form is such that Gareth Ainsworth is without a victory on the road since August, which leaves them in 15th place in League One.
Jack Ross expects his match squad to be the same as last weekend. That means Sunderland will be without the likes of Lee Cattermole, Ethan Robson and Denver Hume. Charlie Wyke and Duncan Watmore remain the long-term absentees and are not expected to be available until Christmas.
Tom Flanagan was not named amongst the Northern Ireland squad this week and was released by manager Michael O’Neill to play for Sunderland today. This is a major boost and will relieve Jack Ross of a headache in defence. Whilst the back-four selected for the Checkatrade game in midweek kept a clean sheet, neither Glenn Loovens nor Alim Öztürk looked a comfortable replacement for Flanagan. With Jack Bainbridge and Brandon Taylor the other defenders capable of playing centre-half, Sunderland’s depth currently lacks a little quality in this area.
Perhaps the biggest selection dilemmas will be over Reece James, Dylan McGeough and Jerome Sinclair. All three started the FA Cup-tie last weekend at Port Vale, whilst Bryan Oviedo, Max Power and Josh Maja impressed in the Checkatrade Trophy on Tuesday evening.
The argument to keep a stable back four may see Oviedo miss out, but what of Power or Maja? The teenage striker bagged his tenth goal of the season and is clearly Sunderland’s greatest goal threat, whilst Jerome Sinclair has the presence to battle a physical side. Similarly, Power brings a different style of play to the more possession-based skills of Dylan McGeough. These are two big calls from the manager, but the expectation is that all four will be called upon at some stage of the afternoon.
Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe have rattled the cages of other promotion hopefuls already this season, taking a point off Portsmouth in September and all three in a 1-0 victory over Peterborough in early November. The Choirboys will visit the Stadium of Light for the first time in their history believing they can upset the form guide once again.
Wycombe have had a mixed run of late. Despite recent improvements resulting in four successive home league wins, they went out in both the Checkatrade and FA Cups this week and haven’t won away win since August. In fact, their recent record on the road reads played three, lost three.
Wycombe will hand a second debut to Matt Ingram in goal after the QPR man returned on an emergency loan following injuries to Ryan Allsop and Yves Ma-Kalambay, whilst Gareth Ainsworth can begin to call on a number of other players returning from injury ahead of the Christmas schedule.
Ainsworth believes his Wycombe side should play with no fear and be excited by the challenge of heading up to the north east:
I saw Sunderland at Port Vale last week and they’re obviously a very strong team; Jack Ross is a great guy and he’s got them playing some excellent football and their record this season and particularly in recent weeks has been first class.
We know Sunderland are the favourites to win but we’re going there hoping to ruin a few accumulators and show what we’re capable of. We’ve played well against some of the top teams so far this season and even though Sunderland are on this fantastic run, we’ll be gutted if we don’t come away with anything because we always believe we can match any team on our day.
Some of our boys will have played at big grounds like the Stadium of Light before but for some of the younger lads it’ll be a new experience and it’s one to be excited about and hold no fear.
We’re going to go out there with every ambition to get something out of the game and I believe that my players can do it.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
Cash turnstiles will be available for this afternoon’s game, opening from 1:30pm.
Turnstiles 34-36 will be open in the north east corner, with tickets priced at £20. Turnstiles 44-46 will also be in operation, with tickets priced at £25.
For those who can’t make it, audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 2pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website, whilst the game is also available via the Match Pass stream for international supporters. Full details can be found on SAFC.com.
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.