RF: Derby are possibly the biggest “will they/won’t they” club in the division, after a few seasons of just missing out on promotion. It will probably have to be via the Play Offs this time but do you think you’ll be a Premier League club next season?
OW: At the moment, it’s hard to predict that we will be. The top four are all in much better form and all look more obviously “promotion-ready”. I confidently predicted a few games ago that Derby would make the top six, but the expected points haven’t materialised since then and the gap to seventh place has tightened considerably - to the point where the more pessimistic among us now actively expect us to miss out completely. After messing up several opportunities to win in recent weeks, we desperately need three points against you lot to steady the ship.
Assuming we do sort ourselves out and finish in the top six, then anything is possible. At the moment, I look at a play-off race probably involving Fulham, Villa, us and Boro and don’t realistically see us winning that. We have beaten Villa and Boro this season though and we’re in among those clubs on merit.
It will only take another flurry of goals from the magical Matej Vydra to banish the blues.
RF: To play devil’s advocate a little, what if you don’t go up this season? Injuries can’t have helped but your form has wobbled a bit lately and momentum is huge in the Championship. So if promotion isn’t achieved this season, what issues will you need to address ahead of the next campaign?
OW: The average age of the team has become a big talking point, because Rowett signed a bunch of over-30s in the summer to add to an already experienced squad. I’ve seen one analysis which suggested we had the oldest team on average in the EFL! So that has to be addressed, because carrying veterans on excessive wages can seriously hold a club back (as you guys know only too well).
There are several players who need “clearing out”, as a result of some very poor recruitment in recent years. The hope is that some younger ones might be recruited (or developed) to add a bit of energy to the team. Mel Morris has announced this week that if we don’t go up this season, he will not be throwing money at it next time, so Rowett will have to wheel and deal, while also looking more closely at some academy prospects for his first-team squad.
RF: There was an entertaining war of words between Gary Rowett and Neil Warnock over your postponed game against Cardiff the other week. It didn’t look ideal around the iPro and the EFL have ruled that Derby did the right thing in calling the game off, so was this just Warnock trying to stir things up? Surely the club couldn’t pull the game for the reasons Warnock was stating?!
OW: Well, quite. I think what has been lost in all of this media hoo-ha he caused is the central fact, which is that Neil Warnock is a complete and utter bellend.
RF: Onto the game, who’s in good form for you at the moment? Which players in particular should Sunderland supporters be worried about?
OW: Our best player by some distance is the number ten, Vydra. If you don’t mark him properly, he has the class to destroy you.
Another serious attacking threat in the ten role is the Chelsea loanee Kasey Palmer, who looks absolutely sumptuous on the ball. Rowett seems to have decided that Palmer is best used as an impact sub, or as cover for Vydra, so he may not be unleashed from the start. But those two undoubtedly have the ability to play in the Premier League. So, fair warning!
RF: Even though we can barely string a single pass together, is there anyone you’re fearful of in our side?
OW: I’m sorry, but no. I have been reading your player ratings, after all…
That said, you should know that many Derby fans have an intense dislike of Lee Camp, despite the fact that he is from the city and emerged from our academy. This is because Camp joined Forest and decided to wind up the home fans at Pride Park during an East Midlands derby. Obviously, he would have been getting dog’s abuse from the stands, but rather than rising above it, he decided to start giving some back.
It is possible to play for the “dark side” and not be disliked for it - but Camp didn’t manage it. So he either ends up having the game of his life on Friday to spite us, or the home faithful enjoy a jolly good laugh at his scruffy, slightly rotund expense.
RF: How do you expect Gary Rowett to approach the game and what do you think his starting line up will be?
OW: Derby have drawn way too many games of late and everyone around the place needs a victory to restore morale. The enforced break caused by the postponement and the internationals came at a good time and Rowett has been putting a lot of effort into rallying the troops, emphasising that this is effectively the fresh start of a nine-game mini-season, in which we need to pip the likes of Preston, Bristol City and Sheffield United.
What I am hoping is that the team go out there and smell blood. Sunderland are so obviously vulnerable, but with the way our recent results have gone, there can be no excuses now on the pitch, or room for complacency in the stands. We need the win and to play with the intensity to deserve the win, simple as that.
There were a few injuries to contend with before the Cardiff postponement, but hopefully, some of those will have cleared up during the international break. Pending fitness checks, Rowett’s most likely line-up is probably Carson; Wisdom (or Baird), Keogh, Davies, Forsyth; Ledley, Johnson; Weimann, Vydra, Lawrence; Nugent.
RF: Finally, can you give us a prediction please?
OW: I can’t predict anything other than a home win, based on Sunderland’s evident frailties at both ends of the pitch. Anything less than that would be unacceptable, maybe even a bit of a disaster, to be brutally honest.
That pressure could play into Sunderland’s hands to an extent, but I think as long as the Rams get the first goal before half-time to settle the crowd down, they should go on to net two or three.
I’ll go for a cathartic 3-0 Derby.