Sunderland play Tranmere Rovers tonight at the Stadium of Light in what will be Phil Parkinson’s first home match as manager of the club.
Following our 1-0 defeat to Wycombe on Saturday, the lads currently sit 10th in the League One table with two games in hand. Tranmere, however, are anxiously placed at 19th, just one point ahead of AFC Wimbledon in the relegation zone.
The last time the two clubs met was 8th January 2000 in the FA Cup - Sunderland lost 1-0, with Wayne Allison scoring Tranmere’s winner. The match was highly controversial as when Clint Hill received a red card for Tranmere he was substituted without the officials realising.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to co-host of the This Is Tranmere podcast, Paul Harper, to discuss how his club have performed this season, as well as to talk about what Sunderland can expect during the match.
MC: Tranmere achieved consecutive promotions in the past two seasons, winning the National League as well as the League Two playoffs - what were the main factors behind the squad’s tremendous success?
PH: As well as having a pretty talented group of players, I think the main thing which has got us through is the togetherness. The team fights for each other and keeps going and going.
The work rate from the side is second to none and there’s a never say die attitude which is great to see. The players don’t know when they’re beaten and we’ve seen already this season that we can produce some great comebacks and score late goals.
MC: Rovers manager Micky Mellon was recently linked with the Sunderland job following his recent success - how far do you think he can take Tranmere, and do you believe he possesses the potential to manage at a higher level?
PH: I’ve said this before on our podcast, This Is Tranmere, that I think Micky Mellon is the best Tranmere manager in my life time. I’ve been supporting Rovers since the late 1980s. John King had a great squad, he also had great resources to build that squad. Micky hasn’t. It’s been carefully put together, making sure he brings in the right characters but also getting the best out of them.
He’s very tactically astute, and can change a game with a formation switch or substitution. And because of that, he can manage higher up for sure. I have no doubt. In terms of how far can he take Tranmere, a lot of that has to do with resources. We can’t compete with the likes of Sunderland and Portsmouth etc. There are some huge clubs in this league. If we can reach top half of this division, he’s done a remarkable job.
MC: Tranmere’s highlight result of the season so far was a 5-0 victory over a highly inexperienced Bolton team, a game many pundits believe should not have been played. Do you think it was fair that a minority of clubs were handed comfortable victories whilst the majority will face their new batch of players?
PH: This is a more complex issue than was it fair they got thrashed a few times at the start of the season and now others won’t be able to as they’ve signed some players. The whole issue of Bolton and Bury should have been sorted way before the start of the season. It was ridiculous that it ran on the way it did. If they weren’t ready to start the season, or didn’t comply to EFL regulations, they should not have been able to compete this season.
I don’t have enough space to give my full opinion, but I think it was handled really poorly. In terms of whether it was a highlight for us, it was nice beating Bolton as there’s a lot of dislike between the two clubs, but personally, I didn’t celebrate like we’d beaten a rival 5-0. It’s not the highlight of the season so far in my eyes.
MC: Max Power started his career with Tramere. His time so far at Sunderland has been difficult - are you surprised he has not excelled here so far?
PH: Max is a really good player, so in that respect, I am a little surprised he hasn’t cemented a regular place in the Sunderland team.
Having said that, you have a great squad which makes it difficult to secure a regular place. He’s a good character though and will keep working hard to try and force his way in, I’m sure.
MC: James Norwood scored 59 goals in the last two seasons for Tranmere before transferring to League One rivals Ipswich in the summer - how big of a miss has he been to your team?
PH: HUGE. We could never replace him like for like. He was brilliant for us and I wish him well at Ipswich. Nors could get us a goal out of nothing and that’s something I think we lack a little bit now. If a game is tight, we don’t have many players who can do what he did for us on many an occasion and win us the game.
MC: The man signed to replace him was former Barnsley striker Stefan Payne - he’s scored four league goals this season but is he doing enough or do you believe Tranmere need to strengthen up top in January?
PH: Strictly speaking, we replaced Norwood with a number of forwards to help try and score us the goals. Payne is not going to score 59 goals in two season, no disrespect meant to him.
But I think he’s done a decent job, winning flick ons, holding the ball up, bringing others into play. He has netted a few goals too and has contributed to the team, for sure.
MC: Despite being dominated in possession, Tranmere ended their horrific away form by beating Coventry earlier this month - are you concerned by your squad’s failure to consistently perform away from Prenton Park?
PH: Not sure I’d call the away form horrific. We’ve played some of the top sides on the road so far. We’ve competed in the majority of games this season. Bristol Rovers and Oxford United away were disappointing for various reasons.
It’s a big step up to move into this division, there are some really good sides, and going away from home is always going to be difficult. I’m not overly concerned.
MC: Do Tranmere play a specific style of play under Micky Mellon which Sunderland can expect?
PH: The style of play has changed under Micky. When we had Norwood, we knew we had someone who would run the channels all day and that out ball was always on. He wants us to play football but in the right areas.
The style will depend on the personnel available and the opposition. I think against Sunderland, we’ll likely set up to be difficult to play against, be well organised, pack the midfield and look to use pace on the counter attack.
MC: Who are the eleven Tranmere players you to expect to see start at the Stadium of Light?
PH: 4-3-3/4-5-1: Scott Davies (C), Jake Caprice, George Ray, Manny Monthe, Liam Ridehalgh; Kieron Morris, Neil Danns, David Perkins, Connor Jennings, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy; Stefan Payne.
MC: Sunderland are unbeaten at home in League One this season - what is your honest prediction of the final score on Tuesday night?
PH: It’s going to be a difficult game, for sure. Two years ago, we could only dream about coming to places like the Stadium of Light in a league game! We were going to North Ferriby and Guiseley!
It’s going to be a huge task to get something out of the game, but we showed against Coventry that we can do that. However, I do think Sunderland will have enough to get past us, sadly. I’ll go for 2-1 and hope I’m wrong!