Things feel a lot different on Wearside since we last played Burton Albion - that late turn around from the Brewers to seal our League One fate felt inevitable as the clouds of doom gathered around the Stadium of Light.
Now though, things look a lot brighter.
We’ve began life in the third tier unbeaten - winning four and drawing one - and this weekend our latest trip sees us travel to the Pirelli Stadium to take on another team that fell out of the Championship last season, Burton Albion.
Our opponents, however, aren’t readjusting so well to the division they were promoted from a couple of seasons ago. When Liam Boyce snatched that win for Burton in April, it looked like the great escape may have been on for Nigel Clough’s men, but it wasn’t to be. Albion took it right to the wire though, only having relegation confirmed on the final day, which may have led you to believe they would be able to re-enter League One with some positive momentum.
That momentum hasn’t exactly transpired - with only two wins and seven points to their name, along with injuries to their two senior goalkeepers, it’s fair to say that Sunderland could be facing Burton Albion at the perfect time. Will it be that straight forward though?
To find out just what we can expect from the Brewers this weekend, I spoke to Joshua Murray from the Burton Mail - who was also our guest on the Roker Rapport Xtra Podcast this week - to give us the low down on the opposition and how he sees the game going.
RR: When we spoke towards the end of last season you said “how Burton will fare in League One will be dependent on what happens to the squad over the summer.” There were quite a few departures in the close season, with players such as Tom Flanagan joining us and Tom Naylor moving to Portsmouth - has this been the biggest factor in the Brewers slow start to the campaign?
JM: Changes to the squad certainly had an effect, but the Brewers were not helped by injury problems that disrupted their pre-season preparations and led them to a slow start. They already had a small squad at that stage, so once a few players were ruled out, it left them with limited options in certain areas.
There was also a little sense of the cliched ‘relegation hangover’ in the way they lost their opening two games, because they played well for long spells in those matches but just didn’t close things out in the key moments.
RR: Sitting in 17th, it hasn’t been a very good opening to the season. Is there a pessimistic air around the Pirelli Stadium or do the fans feel like the club will level things out and consolidate?
JM: There was negativity from some supporters in the early weeks after four defeats from their first five matches left the club in the bottom three.
A small squad size looked likely to stretch them for the season at that stage, too, and they were unable to name a full substitutes bench on several occasions because of their limited options and a spate of injuries.
But a Carabao Cup victory over Aston Villa has been a springboard for improvements in recent weeks, and they’ve taken four points from their last two League matches.
Four signings in the final 48 hours of the loan window, plus the fact that Burton kept hold of star striker Liam Boyce, boosted the positivity around the Pirelli.
Clough said he didn’t expect his squad to be settled until the end of August, and they are still far from the finished article. They are certainly on the up, though - and the aim will be to take another step in the right direction against the Black Cats.
RR: One thing giving Sunderland fans a bit of confidence going into the game is the injury problems that Burton are having with their goalkeepers. I noticed that Nigel Clough has mentioned he will look to bring in another ‘keeper, but youngster Harry Campbell is currently in line for his first start. Just how worried are Burton about the injury crisis or is their confident that Campbell can step up?
JM: It sums up Burton’s misfortune with injuries so far this season that Bradley Collins, the goalkeeper they brought in to replace the stricken Stephen Bywater, has now been ruled out for a few weeks himself.
They are searching for an emergency loan signing or a free agent to come in, but it looks unlikely that anything will be done before Saturday’s game.
That’ll mean a first League start for Harry Campbell. It would be a big moment for the 22-year-old, but one that he will be relishing after a couple of seasons as second or third-choice at the Pirelli.
In his recent showings off the bench, Campbell looks assured and has made some crucial saves - a last-gasp penalty stop in the cup win over Villa, and then a close-range save to deny Accrington from victory at the weekend.
RR: I mentioned Tom Flanagan at the start and he’s a player we haven’t seen much of due to him picking up a knock towards the end of preseason. First of all, how to rate the former Burton man and what’s his best position across the back? Some fans wouldn’t mind seeing him come in at right back for Sunderland, given it’s arguably our weakest position.
JM: I think I mentioned when he joined Sunderland that there was general surprise at Flanagan being put on the transfer list in the summer.
He was a consistent and versatile performer for the Brewers, and his development during their two seasons in the Championship was impressive.
He can play across the back-line, but I personally think his best position is at full-back - and he played enough at left-back in 2016-17 to show he can operate on either side.
The Northern Ireland international is strong and determined in the tackle and has good pace to cover back, but he has also improved his game going forward, so can offer a threat on the overlap or playing the ball into the final third.
RR: Despite it not being a fantastic opening to the season, who should Sunderland fans be worried about in the Burton side? Anyone in decent form?
JM: Liam Boyce is Burton Albion’s talisman. He’s already bagged five goals in all competitions this season, so his clinical edge in the opposition box is crucial.
But it is his all-round game which makes him such a valuable asset. Albion’s system is set up around him, with two wide forwards getting up in support and the onrushing midfielders surging onto the play that he holds up.
If he has a good game, the Brewers usually do too - and he doesn’t need many openings to find the net.
RR: On a similar note, is there anyone in red and white you’re particularly wary of?
JM: It is always hard to look past a goalscorer, isn’t it?
Josh Maja has grabbed some important goals already this season, and Albion will know they have to keep him quiet to stifle the Black Cats.
Further back, ex-Brewer Jon McLaughlin will be a familiar figure in between the sticks at the Pirelli. Burton have already been undone by a few of their former players this season, so they’ll hope he doesn’t recreate some of the breathtaking goalkeeping displays he had while in an Albion shirt.
RR: How do you expect Nigel Clough to approach this game, and what do you think his starting line up will be?
JM: Clough spoke over the summer about wanting his side to take the game to teams more in League One than they were able to in the Championship - and that’s what they’ve aimed to do.
I don’t expect anything different this weekend, so they will look for dynamic runs through the middle, get the ball up to Boyce and for some dangerous deliveries from the wide areas.
They look a more dangerous threat when teams open themselves up, so getting an early goal to put Sunderland on the back foot will be their aim - although they’ll know how good Jack Ross’ side have been at recovering from setbacks so far this season.
Expected line-up (4-3-3): Campbell; Akins, McFadzean, Turner, Hutchinson; Quinn, Fraser, Allen; Sordell, Boyce, Templeton.
RR: Finally, can we have a score prediction please?
ROKER RAPPORT XTRA!— Roker Report (@RokerReport) September 14, 2018
Joining us on the Podcast to preview the huge game tomorrow in League One between #SAFC v #BAFC is @JoshuaMurrayBM from @BurtonAlbionBM.
Give it a listen!
Youtube: https://t.co/JP8aSE2GQp pic.twitter.com/9hagdcUNwo