Sunderland travel to Shropshire on Saturday where they will face Shrewsbury Town at New Meadow. Phil Parkinson’s men moved up to 7th in the League One table after thrashing Tranmere 5-0 on Tuesday night. Our opposition currently sit 14th after a steady start to their season, however only bottom placed Bolton have scored less goals than Sam Ricketts’ men.
Last season Sunderland beat Shrewbury 2-0 away from home, courtesy of Luke O’Nien and an Omar Beckles own goal. Parkinson will be aiming for his first away win as Sunderland manager, after losing 1-0 at Wycombe last Saturday.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Glyn Price of the Blue and Amber Fanzine to discuss what we can expect from Shrewsbury during the match, as well as to see how ex-Sunderland full-back Donald Love is doing with his new club.
MC: We cannot start without talking about Donald Love. The ex Sunderland full-back has been ever present with Shrewsbury since moving this season after an injury plagued three seasons with the Black Cats - how good of a signing has he been?
GP: He has been great for us, in the opening five games he was one of our stand out players. He defends effectively and is always looking to get forward to support our attack. He has avoided injury since joining and is looking like a very solid League One defender.
Sunderland fans thought he would be a poor signing for us, but having seen him perform so far it is hard to see why. He’s technically gifted, committed, hard-working and looks set to enjoy a productive season.
MC: Shrewsbury currently sit 14th in the League One table, but are the second lowest scorers in the division with 11 goals - what are the main factors behind your poor goal-scoring form?
GP: Sam Ricketts favours a safety first mentality of five at the back (wing backs) and seems to have wanted to start this season with a no lose mentality to cope with a injury crisis.
It has worked in the main with us being hard to beat and not conceding much, but this has also led to the team lacking in the attacking positions. The fans are waiting for things to gel and hope that Ricketts will take the handbrake off.
MC: After being originally hyped by the media as Scotland’s next best striker, Jason Cummings has been highly underwhelming since moving to England in 2017. The ex-Rangers forward was linked with Sunderland over the last few seasons - how has he performed so far with Shrewsbury?
GP: Well he went from a new signing to top scorer in about 60 minutes after joining so his immediate impact was great. But like the rest of the strikers in recent games he has been starved of great service and chances as we play with the safety first mentality.
He has been decent though, works hard and is clearly a natural finisher. But for a club like ours signing Cummings was huge, it was exactly what we needed. Even more important now as we have had injuries to strikers (Lang and Udoh) so we don’t have a lot to spare again.
MC: Sam Ricketts successfully avoided relegation last season after taking over from John Askey in December - do you believe he is taking the club forward this season with the club sitting in mid-table?
GP: We are certainly better than last season and the improvements in the defence is to the credit of Ricketts and his recruitment.
Under Askey we were a soft touch but Ricketts has made us a tougher nut to crack. It is effective and is keeping us in mid table which is an improvement.
But not everyone is convinced.
The football this season has been dull and the home games have been terrible. There is a growing sense that there is way more in this team than its currently showing and that Ricketts is holding them back. Time will tell on that one.
MC: Just two seasons ago Shrewsbury finished third in League One and were defeated in the playoff final by Rotherham - does it frustrate you that Paul Hurst couldn't have continued that journey considering his move to Ipswich was a failure?
GP: Yes. Until the Ipswich thing came along and he left under a bigger cloud that he should have, he was the toast of Shrewsbury - there is no doubt it is highly likely he could have kept the good times rolling for us.
But Hurst has learned the grass is not always greener and you do suspect he might think another year with Salop might have been the right call. The Hurst season has also changed our fanbase, as last season showed.
There was a higher degree of expectation, and that’s not really gone away. Fans seem to expect more and be more demanding. A few years ago being mid table in League One would be fine, no one would question it, but as it stands many want more.
MC: After only signing for the club in the summer, Steve Morison surprisingly retired this month to join the coaching staff at Northampton - did that news come as a shock to the fans?
GP: I watched him play at Accrington a few weeks before he retired and to be honest he looked like he was already in semi retirement. He was bang average in his games for us and was likely on a fair wage.
It seems to have worked out well for us as he had lost his place and was a drain on resources. His decision should free up room for Ricketts to sign a new striker in January.
So although it was surprising he retired having pledged to come and play for us every week, it is not a massive hinderance to what we are trying to achieve this season.
MC: What style of play do Shrewsbury play under Ricketts and what would you say are your strengths and weaknesses as a team?
GP: As you might have been able to tell from the other questions it is a defensive minded approach. We play 5-3-2 with wing backs and one sitting midfielder in Goss. At times when under pressure it can feel like we are playing eight at the back. Breaking us down will be difficult for Sunderland, but we are unlikely to offer much of a threat going forward.
Our key strength is the three centre backs. We have four excellent League One centre backs in: Beckles, Peirre, Williams and Ebanks-Lendell. They are backed up with another key part of the team which is our on loan goalkeeper Max O’Leary, he has been a great addition this season.
Weakness as mentioned is scoring goals - we are averaging less than one per game which is very poor.
MC: Who are the eleven Shrewsbury players you expect to start the match against Sunderland at New Meadow?
GP: After the last two bore draws many fans are expecting changes going forward, I think the team will be as follows: 5-3-2 - O’Leary, Giles, Beckles, Peirre, Williams, Love, Edwards, Norburn, Goss, Cummings, Whalley.
MC: What is your honest prediction of the final score on Saturday?
GP: If I am being positive I could see us being robust enough at the back to snatch a draw, but our performance against Gillingham has made me worried, especially after seeing you put five past Tranmere - I will go for a 2-1 Sunderland win.