On the next two games...
It’s a hectic period, full stop. The number of fixtures we’ve already had to date in a short period of time and a big week ahead of us as well. It’s challenging, not just for us, obviously for all the other teams who face a similar fixture list at this time of year.
It cuts down on your preparation time with what you can do on the training pitch. But in the main, the results have still continued to be reasonably positive, which is obviously the important thing.
On the form of Portsmouth and Luton...
I think it’s important to recognise that they’ve obviously had really good seasons because I think we’ve had a good season. To only lose two league games at this stage is a good record, to score in every league match and all the other things we’ve had that we’ve done quite well.
Their form has been very good and very consistent. Obviously, Luton’s form over the last few months in particular has been incredibly consistent and the challenges for those teams, as well as us, is to replicate that over the second half of the season. We know that if we replicate our first half in the second half, then we give ourselves a really good chance. No guarantees, but we give ourselves a good chance.
But we’ve seen to date just how competitive it’s going to be for those top two places.
On Charlton’s season so far...
I thought they would. Even from the first game of the season, I believed that they would be a team that would be in and around us, where we wanted to be. I think they’ve shown that as the season’s continued and their home form in particular is very good.
So, it’s as tough a test as you’ll get away from home, but we’re looking forward to it. I say it all the time about us responding to challenges we’ve had this season and we certainly have another one on Saturday because it will be a tough game.
On the Charlton season opener setting the tone...
I think on that day Lee would have had a fair argument to say that they were hard done by to lose the game. Obviously, they were very good in the first half and I thought we were good in the second half. But in that moment, it felt on reflection, appropriate for us to win the game in that manner.
Given everything that had happened over the summer, it was vital that we tried to continue that mood of optimism that we managed to create around the club and certainly, Lynden’s goal that day helped continue that forward.
On missing Lee Cattermole...
Yes, but if you play regularly that’s going to happen. Each and every time we’re playing against at the moment will have injuries and suspensions. Whether it’s for accumulation of yellow cards or for straight reds or for injuries that are picked up, longer term ones or niggles.
Every squad will be stretched during this period, unless you’re incredibly fortunate and you don’t have any of the things that I’ve spoken about there. We’re a bit stretched at the moment for the combination of them both.
So, certainly timing wise, I’d prefer it not to be the case because he’s been very good for me this season, Lee. But it is what it is, and it goes with the territory of being a competitive midfield player. Particularly in this era, where it’s not all that difficult to pick up a yellow card and I think that we’ve seen that over the course of this season as well.
On Maja’s contract situation...
I think it’s important to emphasise that the deadline wasn’t set by me as a manager. I’ve heard that reported elsewhere and little details like that become a little bit frustrating because I’m always fairly straight forward and try to be quite honest in my answers.
As a club, that’s a club decision and it’s taken because we want to try and create a model where we understand where we’re at and what we need to do to move forward. Not just in this window, but obviously from the summer and beyond as well.
Although football is very short-term, there has to be medium- and longer-term plans in place. So, that deadline for that final contract offer is there. What I’ve also been keen to stress is that should that contract pass without an agreement, it doesn’t change anything from my perspective simply as a manager because the manager and player relationship is very good.
For as long as he’s a Sunderland player and he performs in the way he has done for this season, he’ll always be a part of my plans. So, there’s no update other than that and I know people will then believe that it’s a given that he won’t stay, I couldn’t say either way.
For me, and I do repeat myself on this and it genuinely is my focus as a whole to try and prepare a team for Saturday because the games have been coming so quickly, but naturally, I’m like everybody else and I’d love him to commit his future to the club.
On potentially having to replace Maja...
I think if you’re ever going to face upheaval in your squad that you don’t want, then naturally you’d like as much time as possible to cope with that upheaval, if you like, and have a plan. The plan is in place, but in terms of being able to action that plan.
It’s a fair point to say that if you are going to lose a player, you obviously want it to be earlier rather than later in the window. That’s the same for in the summer because the less time you have to find a replacement, the more challenging that is.
On improving the attack if Maja leaves...
I think we need to make sure that we have enough options in forward areas because I do think that we’ve done remarkably well to get to this stage of the season with the lack of out and out strikers that we have at the club because of injuries.
Josh has taken on that responsibility incredibly well, but there’s been a lot placed on his shoulders. As have the other attack minded players, but none of the other ones who have played regularly, Chris, Aiden, Lynden, are out and out strikers.
I’ve never really thought beyond him not being here, but if he isn’t, then certainly, we’d need to make sure that we have enough in place because once the window closes that’s you until the end of the season.
On waiting for a resolution to Maja’s new contract...
The resolution side of it is ideal or preferable for quite obvious reasons and for reasons that I’ve spoke about, about having a vision of where the club wants to try and get to and how it best does that. But ultimately, the lack of a resolution doesn’t change that much for me as a manager.
It may change things for Stewart and for the board and understandably so, I get that. But for me, it doesn’t change an awful lot. You’re right to point out that there’s only so much speculation and interest because of the season he’s had. I’m not saying he’s came from nowhere in that respect because he had scored in the Championship, but it’s been quite a dramatic upturn in his fortunes, if you like.
From being somebody that maybe had potential, to somebody that has shown that he can score goals on a regular basis and can cope with playing on a regular basis, all be it at a level that I’m sure he’d like to test himself at a higher one.
It goes with the territory and I don’t have any problem with that. I’ve not had an issue with any speculation surrounding him and I’ve said often enough that I don’t think it’s affected him in any way.
For people that have been to the games over the festive period, Bradford, Shrewsbury and Blackpool. I think arguably, his three most consistent performances of the season, back-to-back, which is a positive for him as well.
On bringing in a defender...
With all being well, we’ll hopefully be able to do that at the beginning of next week. Unless anything changes last minute, which sometimes it can. But we’re quite far down the line and we’ve been quite far down the line for a while, to have that in place and organised ready to go at the first possible date.
So, we’re hoping that at the beginning of next week we’ll be able to finalise that, all being well.
On being open to bringing in new players...
We’ve got a reasonably robust structure in place now, which shows that we have a plan in place should we not just lose Josh but should anything else change. It’s difficult to always say with certainty that everything will remain the same because of the unpredictable nature of football in general.
I suppose I had it in the summer to a degree where for example, Callum McManaman was doing really well and all of a sudden, within a day or two he was obviously off to the Championship with Wigan.
What I would say is that because we’ve had more time together and the regularity in which I speak with Tony Coton and how often we meet and chat. So, it’s quite good and we feel as if we’re in a reasonably good position should anything unpredictable or unplanned come around.
Other than that, we wouldn’t do anything unless we felt that they added real value because understandably, I’m reasonably happy with that squad because they’ve proven themselves to be competitive in this league to date.
If there’s an opportunity to add that we thought would make a huge difference to the second half of the season, then I’m sure we would ask the question of Stewart and equally, he was very supportive with what we tried to do in the summer.
How pleased are you with the squad so far?
I say it all the time because I was quite open in what I felt as if our ambition should be at the start of the season, so for me I would like to be top of the league. But I do feel as if we’re probably further ahead than where I maybe envisaged, because the upheaval in the summer was fairly dramatic and we were very much playing catch up for a whole number of reasons.
I think Stewart, the board and Tony would all agree with that, that it was a summer period that I don’t think any of us expected it to be as challenging as it was. So, I think the players deserve an enormous amount of credit for giving themselves a platform for success in the second half.
For me as a manager, I haven’t achieved anything here yet at this club. Getting it to this stage, I don’t look upon it as an achievement, it’s just my job to try and get it to a position where it can be successful again.
Looking forward to the second half of the season, as a whole group we’ve learnt more about the league as it’s went on. As I said earlier, the focus is about replicating, by in large, what we’ve done. If we repeat that, if you look at a points per game total, we’re not going to be far away. If we get above that, then brilliant because that would almost guarantee success.
On the quality of the teams in the league...
I genuinely think it’s a good league. It’s interesting speaking to some of my own players about the standard of the league and some other managers. I can only probably pass this on second hand because I don’t really have a strong opinion on it, but there seems to be a general feeling that because of maybe some of the recruitment in the Premiership and how that’s dripped down into the Championship and then some of the recruitment in the Championship has meant that there’s probably stronger players in this league than there has been in the past.
Subsequently, a lot of the teams are stronger, so I think the levels of the teams are good. I think throughout the league we’ve always faced difficult games, but if you look at those top six, seven, eight teams in particular, there are some good sides in there. Teams that are good sides for various reasons, some teams have been together for a while, some teams that have a really good manner in which they play like Doncaster.
I think every one of those teams around that top eight at the moment are good sides. I think that they believe that they would add something to the league above as well. So, that again, just emphasises how tough of a division it is to try and get out.