Mid-table Rochdale visit Sunderland for the first time ever today - the only ‘meeting’ as such was a game between them and our U23s side two years ago, which ended 1-1.
The game, which was played out at Rochdale’s Spotland Stadium, ended in a penalty shoot-out which was won 4-2 by the home side. Amongst the players representing Sunderland that day were current captain, George Honeyman, and striker Josh Maja.
Today will be a new situation altogether - and the visitors arrive in reasonable form.
Rochdale opened their campaign with a 2-1 win at Burton, but three league defeats and a draw in the opening month meant The Dale languished in the bottom half. September has been a better time for Keith Hill’s side, as they picked up three points at Coventry, drew at Scunthorpe and beat Gillingham 3-0 last weekend. Now sitting in 13th and eyeing three points that would propel them towards the play-off places, Rochdale will be fully aware of Sunderland’s weaknesses.
The Gaffer says...
Saturday was probably the strongest our squad was and yet, first half certainly, was our poorest performance this season.
We’re still a work-in-progress in a whole number of ways at the club. At the start of the season, we probably started as well as we could have imagined, giving everything that had went on.
I’ve said previously I do believe that we face challenges on a weekly basis that’s different to most teams in the league because we’ve seen how much it’s meant to everybody associated with the visiting clubs that have come. They have very much cup tie or cup final feels about them.
The reaction [to last week’s defeat] has been good because there’s a consistency in our behaviour as staff. The behaviours and the way we approach things remains consistent, regardless that you’ve suffered your first defeat.
However, there’s obviously aspects of that defeat that we have made clear to the players and they understand it. They understand why they didn’t play last week and then the next challenge is obviously to put it right. It’s the reaction that’s the most important thing and that will be seen in terms of the performance level on Saturday.
As a manager, I learn after every game. I never put more weight on losing a game or winning a game - every game that we play I reflect upon. But, certainly in terms of the players, it’s been interesting to see how they’ve reacted and their response has been really good on the training pitch and the next test is how they respond on a match day.
Enormous amount of respect for what Keith Hill has done [at Rochdale] because I think his record has been terrific in terms of gaining the club’s promotions and establishing themselves in this league. They obviously had a good result last week and their away record is very good as well. It will be another tough game for us.
Much has been made this week of Charlie Wyke’s injury and he returns to the long-term absentee list, alongside Duncan Watmore. Whilst both players would be key figures in the Sunderland team when fully fit, their absence hasn’t been felt too keenly so far this season and the hope is that remains the case.
Josh Maja has performed extremely well this season and was rewarded with the EFL Player of the Month award this week. His goals have been a key part in Sunderland’s positive start to the seaon and will lead the line again today.
At the back, Jack Baldwin has proved to be a shrewd signing and perhaps our best player to date. His emerging partnership with Glenn Loovens has proved reliable, but Jack Ross has struggled to find a third, key defender to provide a consistent defence. Ross has alluded to the fact that Tom Flanagan was his first choice during pre-season and would have started against Charlton but for injury. As Sunderland struggle to keep clean sheets, perhaps now is the time to reintroduce him to the starting line-up.
Chris Maguire perhaps underperformed for a game or two and it was no surprise to see him on the bench at Burton. However, a screamer to give us some hope and a strong response to losing his place means the former Oxford forward is likely to make the starting XI today. Certainly, in the absence of Charlie Wyke, Maguire seems the most obvious choice to play off Maja.
Between defence and attack, the midfield may continue to pick itself. In the absence of Max Power, who serves the final game of his suspension, Lee Cattermole will continue to shield the defence as the holding midfielder. Dylan McGeough has trained this week, after missing the trip to the Pirelli Stadium last weekend, and is hopeful of a return today. Much is expected of the Scot and it is his creativity and vision we need if we are to progress this season. Ahead of him, captain George Honeyman will return to a more advanced role, where the youngster has more of an impact than when playing deep.
Lynden Gooch spoke this week of his role as a right wing-back and whilst he is adding a defensive element to his game, his attacking play remains a key weapon in Sunderland’s armoury. With Bryan Oviedo left and Gooch right, making the most of the Stadium of Light pitch will test Rochdale today.
Whilst Sunderland harbour ambitions of an immediate return to the Championship, Rochdale have set their sights to be an established League One side. Manager Keith Hill has done a tremendous job at the Crown Oil Arena, and will be looking forward to pitting his wits against Jack Ross today.
Hill has reported no fresh injury problems as they travel north today. Goalkeeper Josh Lillis and Republic of Ireland Under-21s defender Ryan Delaney both took part in last Saturday’s 3-0 win over Gillingham, while midfielder Jordan Williams emerged from the bench after recovering from a knee problem.
Rochdale are clearly relishing the trip, as their gaffer says:
We’re looking forward to it, we’re looking forward to playing at the stadium. The pitch will be no different than ours, our pitch is in great form at the minute, it looks superb.
We’ve got to get rid of the sideshows, the psychology, the big stadium.
To be fair to Sunderland, they’ve had two terrible seasons, they’re a Premier League side playing League One football.
Where Can I Catch The Game?
Turnstiles will be open for today’s game, for both home and away fans.
For those who can’t make it in person, audio is provided on the club website by Nick Barnes, and you can tune in to that from around 2pm on SAFC.com, whilst the game is being streamed live to international fans.
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.