To say that Sunderland and Bristol Rovers have endured polar opposite experiences this season in League One would be something of an understatement.
With the Lads sat in third, having lost just once in the league all season and with two games in hand on both of the sides above them, Bristol Rovers are managerless, have lost their last four and are four points from the nearest team above them in the table, languishing in 21st place.
You could say that Rovers are having the kind of season Sunderland fans became accustomed to when we were in the Premier League - they’ve not really got a strong goalscorer, are conceding goals by the bucketful and are experiencing turmoil both on the pitch and in the boardroom.
It’s a familiar tale, one we all hope we’ll not experience here on Wearside ever again.
To go in-depth on where this Saturday’s opponents are at, I sat down with Rovers fan Max, who is part of the brilliant GasCast podcast.
Max was also our guest on the Roker Rapport Xtra Podcast this week, chatting with Jimmy Lowson about his club’s fortunes and their chances ahead of the game - you can listen to that for free on iTunes, Acast, Spotify & Youtube.
RR: Most Sunderland fans, I’d imagine, don’t know a great deal about Bristol Rovers other than the fact you’ve lost your last four games and your manager has just been sacked. Can you sum up your season so far for us?
GasCast: Our season so far has been nothing short of miserable. With just four wins, and an inability to score goals from open play, relegation seems more of a growing reality than a possibility. The nucleus of our promotion-squad from the recent past has dissipated, and been replaced by players who whilst on-paper fit the bill, on the pitch have not performed or justified their fees and wages.
We have won just 6 games of our last 38, so any sort of win has been a rarity in the last twelve months, and the general mood around the club is dour, particularly now that fan-favourite manager Darrell Clarke has rightly or wrongly been sacked.
RR: It’s a long old trek up north for this one and the frosty chill off the north sea will ensure that this is going to be a cold occasion - do you think your boys will be up for the game?
GasCast: The fans will definitely be up for it. It’s a big stadium, and we always travel well regardless of how we are doing in the league. The team however is something of an uncertainty.
I would hope that they all have a point to prove now that the manager has been sacked, and their jobs are on the line with January looming, however I just do not think we have the quality to pull off a result at the Stadium of Light.
RR: I took a look at the odds with the bookies for this one, and they really don’t fancy anything other than a simple Sunderland victory. Thing is, though, that we’ve slipped once or twice at home this season against teams at the other end of the table. With that in mind, do you think Rovers are capable of coming and causing an upset?
GasCast: I think any team is always capable. League One in the past few years has always seemed relatively balanced, where anyone can beat anyone. That said, we are in a very bad run of form, and whilst our defensive record has been impressive this season, that seems to be coming to an end following our 0-4 home defeat to Doncaster Rovers.
We don’t have enough goals in our team - our strikeforce has a combined 4 goals between the 4 of them, and our top goalscorer is our centre back on 3 goals. The bookies are right to back Sunderland, who should really be winning this one on paper. That said, anything can happen, and I’m hoping for a miracle performance - but if I’m honest, I can’t see it.
RR: Former Sunderland striker Marcus Stewart followed your old manager out the door this week as his assistant. What do you make of Stewart as a coach? He was, of course, on the scoresheet for Rovers when these two sides last met in league action (in 1993, a 2-2 draw at Twerton Park)...
GasCast: Stewart deservedly should take credit for his part in the two promotions he was apart of in 2014/15 and 2015/16. He was a fantastic striker for ourselves back in the day, and indeed a great deal of clubs up and down the country - and that rubbed off on a few of our forwards under him.
Matty Taylor was a bench-warming winger for Forest Green Rovers until we picked him up, and with Stewart’s coaching, Taylor scored 22 goals in the Conference, and then a whopping 28 goals in League Two the following year (Taylor did eventually leave for Bristol City for a measly £300k, which was about 10% of his real market value due to his release clause, and he is now dead to us, but that’s another story).
Stewart also turned players like Billy Bodin and Ellis Harrison into top strikers for the club, so his influence cannot be understated, and he will be missed.
RR: Who are the ‘danger-men’ in the Rovers team, the players who have the quality to sneak a goal or put in an impressive performance?
GasCast: I’m hoping Liam Sercombe can step up. Last season he scored 12 goals from Central Midfield, however this year he just has the one goal to his name.
He’s been shifted out as a Left-Forward in a 4-3-3, and on the occasion that he does play in his natural central position, he seems to have been given a new holding role, rather than an attacking one.
I’m hoping he can rediscover last year’s form that saw him become player of the season, as he really was a goal threat, and that’s what Rovers need right now.
RR: By the same token, who are the Sunderland players that you fear coming up against most? We’ve got a pretty-much fully fit squad to choose from...
GasCast: Well, where to start. I think it’s fair to say that pretty much every player for Sunderland is better than their opposite number at Rovers. I’d love to even just have one of them in our squad.
I think I fear Maguire most. He was fantastic for Oxford a few years ago, and always gave us trouble. His experience at this level seems to have proven invaluable to yourselves, and I’m expecting a goal from him tomorrow.
That said, any one of your players could hurt us. Maja and Honeyman are fantastic talents, Max Power has already won promotion from League One in 2018, and Aiden McGeady really shouldn’t be playing at this level.
I’m bigging your squad up a lot, so knowing me, we’ll go and win tomorrow now.
RR: Are you making the trip up for the game?
GasCast: I am indeed. I’m flying up to Edinburgh at 7am in the morning, and then catching a train down to Newcastle, where we are staying at an AirBNB.
Then we get a train to Sunderland, watch Rovers lose, then back to Newcastle for a night out. It’s my birthday on Sunday, so at least there will be one thing to celebrate!
RR: Finally... a score prediction. What do you reckon might happen?
GasCast: I’m going to say 3-1 Sunderland.
Our defence is shaky following a heavy defeat, but I think the big crowd and away following, as well as the manager’s sacking could push the team to at least get a goal, and give us SOMETHING to shout about, even if it’s just an ironic jeer.