I listened to this week’s episode of the Roker Rapport Xtra Podcast this morning, and the one thing that struck me after hearing our guest (Blackpool Gazette journalist Rosie Swarbrick) talk for just five minutes is that Sunderland going to come up against a very motivated and confident Fleetwood side this weekend.
Rosie’s enthusiasm for the job that Joey Barton has done so far actually unnerved me in a way that I don’t think any opponent so far this season has done, and that to me means that this weekend’s game will go one of two ways - things will either go exactly as Rosie and many other Fleetwood fans expect and they’ll come here and turn us over, or their over-confidence will in-fact hurt them and they’ll be pulled to bits on their big day out.
Joey Barton, like him or loathe him, always played football with his heart on his sleeve and it’s no surprise to hear that he’s managed to capture the imagination of the Fleetwood fans and players with his own brand of positive togetherness.
With that in mind I sought out the opinions of another voice to find out just how far Barton’s infectious attitude has spread. Enter Ben Knapman, a Cod Army fanatic who has a clear message for Sunderland supporters - underestimate Fleetwood Town at your own peril!
RR: Let’s get this one out the way nice and early - your manager is Joey Barton, and our fans cannot stand him. What do you make of him so far?
Ben: Really good - he’s got us playing some good football. We’ve taken 11 points out of 18, and he has brought a real togetherness - we’re starting to look like a real team. He’s been backed by the owners with the signings of players like Dean Marney and Ched Evans - players of their quality are very good to have, particularly at this level. So yeah, so far so good from Joey.
RR: Would you say that Fleetwood have over-exceed expectations so far, or were you always confident that you would start this well?
Ben: No I wouldn’t. People look at Fleetwood and think ‘why are they that high?’, but it’s not always about sizes of clubs and who is the biggest when you play at this level. We have brought in some real quality this season on the pitch as I said before, signing the likes of Ched Evans, and Jason Holt on loan. Getting Lewie Coyle back was excellent business also. We have a good togetherness, so so far I’m happy where we are and we are where I expected we’d be before the season started.
RR: How well is Evans playing, and would you say he’s your dangerman?
Ben: Ched has started well - we brought him to the club and haven’t reminded him of his past, and have instead given him freedom to come here and just play football. And, to his credit, he’s thrived. He’s scored five goals and has three assists already - a tremendous return from a new player. The only real problem with Ched is that his jumping isn’t the best, but apart from that he has been excellent. We also have Ashley Hunter up front who is very quick and dangerous - he will cause you problems all day!
RR: Barton said in his pre-match press conference that he felt he had the better players when asked about Sunderland. Would you agree? Do you think he was just saying that to cause a bit of controversy, or do you reckon he genuinely believes it?
Ben: He is doing something that no other manager in League One has done when it comes to Sunderland and is talking up his own team instead of yours. He genuinely believes his group are the best in League One. For players to hear him say that, it gives them so much confidence - and then, the players enjoy working for Joey Barton. I feel he does believe it. I love the way he’s not scared of Sunderland.
RR: How do you think your players will react to coming to a big stadium?
Ben: Our players will love it - the Stadium of Light holds more than the population of Fleetwood! We have always done well at big grounds away, beating Sheffield United in front of the highest crowd we have ever played in front of, so Saturday will be another record breaking day for Fleetwood. I think we will thrive - we have no pressure on us to win and I think that will help us in the game.
RR: How many fans are Fleetwood expecting to bring? Has there been much of a buzz around the occasion or not?
Ben: Yes, there has been - it was the first game that most of our fans looked for first when the fixture list came out apart from Blackpool away! We don’t always travel in big numbers but I feel we will bring over 600 fans - for Fleetwood that’s 25% of what we get at home, so it’s a brilliant away day crowd by our own standards.
RR: What are your expectations for the game?
Ben: I think it’ll be a tight affair, especially with over 30,000 Sunderland fans behind their team. It’s going to be interesting, but I feel we can get something out the game. I’ll go for a 1-1 draw, with Paddy Madden scoring for Fleetwood and Josh Maja nabbing an equaliser for Sunderland.
RR: How important at this stage of the season do you think a win over Sunderland would be?
Ben: It would be massive! It would give the fans a real belief that we could do something this season, and the players will love it. To win at such a big club away would be a brilliant achievement, and would show League One what we are truly capable of. I hope we can set that statement of intent with a win on Saturday.
RR: What do you perceive to be Sunderland’s weaknesses, and how do you expect that Barton will look to expose them?
Ben: Sunderland will be wanting to attack and put on a display, so I’d like to see Fleetwood play on the counter attack. That said, if Sunderland score first it could be a long way back for us so I envisage that early doors we’ll keep it tight. It could be a very interesting game - don’t underestimate us by looking at our size of the club. We can beat anybody!