Jack Ross will have been disappointed not to have grabbed top spot last weekend, but was still up-beat in his press conference this week. The Sunderland gaffer reminded us just how far the club have come in the last few months, and the run of eight consecutive victories is testament to the job he is doing as a new manager on Wearside.
It is easy to forget that Ross was managing in Scotland barely six months ago, whilst Josh Maja couldn’t get a starting place in the Sunderland side. Yet whilst one is rebuilding a whole team, the other is making a huge name for himself on the pitch.
Today, the reinvigorated Sunderland squad will travel to Walsall in anticipation - rather than hope - of securing the points to continue their journey back up the leagues.
The Gaffer says...
I know that I get told often enough that I have a good squad here and I’ve agreed with that, but you have to get the best from them. I think what we’ve done here is create a culture amongst the players that they believe it’s a group that’s having a good season to date and that’s been proven. As a group of players, they deserve an enormous amount of credit for that.
I think they also understand that when they get in the team, if they play well, they’ll stay in it. I’ve been fair in my team selection in that way, so I think that’s helped to breed an environment where players give the reaction that they did last week.
As much as we have players who have played at the very top level and some players who have experienced dealing with being the favourites in games and dealing with being the big club, I think to face it every week has been new for everybody, me included.
Every time we go home or away, we’re perceived as favourites, rightly or wrongly. I do believe now that they’re a group of players that have got used to that. They know what comes with that as well, the types of challenges they face, how difficult the opposition makes it and the atmosphere that follows these games home and away as well.
I think they actually enjoy it now. I enjoy it. I think the players enjoy it.
I know that [Walsall] have changed their system recently which has brought them good rewards with their recent results.
Obviously, they started the season very well and they were up and around those top four/five positions for majority of that early part of the season.
It’s one of the grounds that I’m reasonably familiar with because I played there when I was down here, so that helps me a little bit in terms of being familiar with the surroundings.
But like every game, every home and away game we’ve had this season has been incredibly tough and I expect no different on Saturday.
Sunderland have met Walsall 13 times down the years.
Our earliest contests came in Division Two during the 1961/62 and 1962/63 seasons. Sunderland lost the inaugural game 4-3 at Fellows Park in August 1961, but recovered to beat The Saddlers 6-2 in a League Cup-tie at Roker Park two months later. A further two months later, in December ‘61, Sunderland won the second league game of the season 3-0. The following season, The Black Cats did the double over Walsall, with a 5-0 home win and a 3-2 away victory.
The two sides would not meet again until the 1987/88 season, under Denis Smith in Division Three. Both games were drawn - 2-2 at Walsall and 1-1 in the Roker Park return. Sunderland won the league whilst Walsall finished third. Having beaten Notts County, Walsall faced a two-legged final against Bristol City, which finished 3–3 on aggregate. A penalty shoot-out followed to decide who would host the replay, which Walsall won. The Saddlers went on to win the replay 4-0 and follow Sunderland into Division Two.
Walsall then went on to do the double over Smith’s second division side, beating The Lads 2-0 at Fellows Park and 3-0 at Roker. However, The Saddlers finished bottom of the league and the two sides would not cross paths again until the 1999 League Cup. Both clubs had moved grounds by then and Sunderland won the tie over two legs: 3-2 at the Stadium of Light and 5-0 at the Bescot Stadium.
The last time Sunderland played Walsall in league competition was during the First Division campaign of 2003/04. A Marcus Stewart goal won the game for Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in October, whilst strikes from Julio Arca and Kevin Kyle preceded another Stewart goal to secure a 3-1 victory at the Bescot during the March return.
The state of play...
Sunderland’s run of consecutive eight victories ended with a spirited and organised display from Wycombe Wanderers last week. However, the home side came close to winning the game, despite only equalising on 84 minutes. The point consolidated second place for Jack Ross’ side, whilst closing the gap on leaders Portsmouth to two points.
Today’s game is another opportunity for Sunderland to take top spot, if results fall in our favour. A win at The Bescot Stadium coupled with Portsmouth failing to win at Scunthorpe would suffice. The Lads have a far better goal difference than Pompey, so even a draw for the south coast side today would see them slip to second should victory be secured by Ross’ team.
For Walsall, who sit in eleventh, a result today would inch them back towards the play-off places. A run of only one win in their last five, and having not won in the league during November, means Dean Keates faces a tough week. Today’s game against Sunderland is followed by a trip to Portsmouth on Tuesday evening. With two points separating the Saddlers from the play-off places they will be hoping for a positive week.
During his press conference this week, Jack Ross spoke of the niggling injuries being carried by Chris Maguire, Dylan McGeough and Jerome Sinclair. Given the injury records of the latter pair in particular and the impact of Max Power and Josh Maja against Wycombe last week, there is a suggestion that both McGeough and Sinclair will be replaced today.
Power has had to earn his place back in the side following suspension, but his impact in recent games against Port Vale and Wycombe have been impressive. A case for him starting today have been argued already as McGeough didn’t have his best game last week, but Ross also spoke of many players having an ‘off’ day last Saturday. Similarly, Maja’s goalscoring impact from the bench will surely have secured his place today.
Elsewhere, the defence is likely to pick itself once more. Unlike Power, Bryan Oviedo has been unable to regain his place following suspension due to a combination of injury and the form of Reece James. The former Wigan man has quietly secured the left-back spot and will be another who’s contract will need looking at in the next few weeks.
With Lee Cattermole still sidelined, it’s likely that George Honeyman will continue in a deeper role, whilst the trio of Lynden Gooch, Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire - if he passes a fitness test - will support Maja in attack.
Sunderland will have been smarting at missing the opportunity to take top spot last weekend, but will be fired up to have another attempt at unseating Portsmouth today.
Dean Keates started his professional career at Walsall and played 162 for The Saddlers between 1995 and 2002. Having rejoined the club for a short spell between 2006-07, Keates returned for his third spell in March of this year to manage the team.
Having managed Wrexham for 18 months prior to his return, Keates was a popular appointment and secured the Saddler’s place in League One, avoiding relegation by two points. This season, with only six defeats from eighteen league games, Keates is making his mark on the club.
Keates said this week that his side will continue to embrace their underdog status against Sunderland today:
I think we have been labelled the underdog from day one. It’s the same week-in, week-out for us.
We are now coming up against the giants of the division if you like. It was just a few years ago they were in the Premier League. But they are League One and that’s for a reason.
We have just got to keep going about our own business. We are accountable for us. We don’t need to worry about anyone else. It’s all about making sure we are ready.
It’s going to be a test, but it’s a test we are looking forward to.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
Audio commentary will be provided by Nick Barnes from around 2pm on both BBC Newcastle and the club website.
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.