Sunderland travel to the Kassam Stadium tonight where they will face Oxford United in the last sixteen of the Carabao Cup. The two sides drew 1-1 on the opening day of the League One season, with Lynden Gooch’s second half penalty cancelling out Tariqe Fosu’s opener to earn Sunderland a point.
Under Jack Ross Sunderland defeated Accrington before going against the odds to beat Premier League sides Burnley and Sheffield United. Oxford knocked out both Peterborough and Millwall, but most impressively put four past West Ham in the previous round.
Ahead of the match, I caught up with BT Sport analyst George Dugdale to discuss how Oxford have progressed since we last crossed paths, as well as what we can expect from Karl Robinson’s side during the cup tie.
MC: Oxford are unbeaten across 10 matches in all competitions since losing to Fleetwood at the start of September, scoring 28 goals along the way - what are the main factors for your team’s fantastic form?
GD: Time. When we spoke before the start of the season, I remember saying that our start may be slow but there was cause for optimism in the long run. That is now coming to fruition.
Winning breeds confidence and that obviously should not be underestimated, but I would have been concerned if this squad were not turning in performances as we move towards November.
They fully understand their respective roles in the team, there is more depth to the squad than we may have realised in August and probably most importantly, the whole club is pulling in the same direction. As fans, we absolutely love a moan, but this feels a lot like our last promotion campaign in terms of the atmosphere around the club at the moment.
MC: The Yellows currently are placed 5th in the League One table, five points behind leaders Ipswich and Wycombe - are you confident that Karl Robinson’s men can have a serious push for promotion this season?
GD: It’s still very early in the season and after a weekend in which Cameron Brannagan picked up an injury which he are hoping won’t see him absent for too long, it would be silly to make too bold a claim (ignore what I said in the first answer...!). The squad is good, we haven’t conceded many and we are scoring lots. That is the kind of recipe that will always give you a chance. The style of play is one of the best I’ve seen at Oxford and for opponents, it must be a nightmare to play against.
As with every club, injuries will dictate whether we can keep the consistency of selection that has allowed us to rise up the table. There is also the worry of what January may bring. If Championship scouts aren’t taking positive reports back after watching some of these players’ performances, they aren’t doing their jobs properly. Hopefully, we can keep the core together with the incentive of a possible promotion charge keeping them here until the summer.
MC: Sunderland have lost the two away games Phil Parkinson has managed so far against Wycombe and Shrewsbury, do you think the fear factor around playing Sunderland has worn off and teams now see the club as there for the taking?
GD: Without meaning to sound arrogant, absolutely in the first aspect of that question. We experienced a similar feeling when we dropped into the non-league. Sunderland shouldn’t be in League One and we should never have been in the Conference.
Unfortunately, nobody in those respective leagues cares for what these clubs once achieved. If anything, it’s a scalp to be taken and makes life difficult initially. In terms of the second, “there for the taking” could come across as more derogatory than I would say myself. I certainly feel that if we play as we have been recently, we have a very good chance of winning the game.
However, that applies to any team that comes to play us at the moment - West Ham in the last round included. Some may say that the league is the priority, but I really want to be in a quarter-final. I’ll be gutted if we don’t show our best with such a good opportunity presented.
MC: Oxford winger Tariqe Fosu has scored eight goals in sixteen appearances since joining from Charlton in the summer - how important is it to have a player who possesses his pace and skill at this level?
GD: He has been absolutely brilliant. Karl Robinson said when he arrived that he loves wingers and he loves this one in particular. There is a strange thing in football where certain players, managers or clubs work as a combination. In the player-manager aspect of that, Fosu and Robinson seem to work together better than they do apart.
Fosu has pace and unpredictability about his game, but his constant goal threat has surprised me. Consistency wasn’t something that Charlton fans thought we would ever get from him so all credit goes to both manager and player for hitting the ground running.
MC: With the January transfer window upcoming, are you worried that Championship clubs could come in for your star players such as Cameron Brannagan and Rob Dickie and do you think Oxford would sell?
GD: Always. Ask me that question about any of the last 10 seasons and any of the next 10 and the answer will be the same! Our finances will always make it difficult to say no when good money is put on the table. Roofe, Lundstram, Johnson, O’Dowda, Ledson, Whyte...we know it’s likely to happen sooner or later.
Cameron Brannagan is too good for League One football and will certainly be in the Championship before long. I’d love to say that he will stay with us and achieve that ambition in a yellow shirt, but that feels fanciful. I think he will get the move he deserves in the summer, at the very latest. It’s easy to say that your players are the best in the league and the manager isn’t shy of saying it, but if there are many better players than Brannagan at this level then fair play to them! He’s my greatest concern on the departure front.
Chris Cadden would be a candidate for football at a higher level if he hadn’t agreed a move to the MLS ahead of signing for us. Unless Columbus decide they want him out earlier than expected, that should act as a safety blanket around the best right back we have had since George Baldock.
Rob Dickie has kicked on beyond what I believed possible at the start of the season. He lives locally and has just become a father so hopefully, the upheaval of a move would be too much of a pain for him to consider!
MC: We spoke previously about how it was a fantastic coup for Oxford to sign Welsh international winger Ben Woodburn on loan from Liverpool, has he performed as you expected he would?
GD: He started a little slowly and there was a frustration that he couldn’t turn the flashes of inspiration that we know he is capable of into consistent 90 minute performances. He dropped back into a midfield three and that was having a real impact before a broken foot side-lined him, potentially until the New Year.
If he comes back as he was playing before the injury, there are plenty of signs for optimism. He sees things that others at this level don’t and he was beginning to get to grips with the physicality of the division. It was always going to take him a while and it is a real shame that the injury came at a time where he was starting to click.
MC: Oxford have won every cup tie this season at the Kassam Stadium and have lost just once at home in League One this season - how influential do you think a supportive crowd can be to a player’s performance?
GD: Massively, but that hasn’t always been the case home. I remember Robinson saying that the players didn’t like playing at home early on in his tenure, but the recent records suggest that they have learned to get the best out of playing at a largely soulless three-sided ground.
We would all love a proper home that we feel is befitting of the club, but we need to be able to make this a fortress while we play here. Thankfully, the whole vibe around the club has been positive and the negativity that followed years of mixed home performances has lifted.
When the ground is full and behind the team, it’s not as bad a ground as it can feel when you’re 3-0 down in minus temperatures on a Tuesday night in February. There is a concerted effort around the club to improve attendances this season. The entertainment factor has been superb and performances do tend to improve when the crowd is giving the boys some backing.
MC: Karl Robinson selected a full strength team in the previous round against West Ham, who are the eleven players you think will start against Sunderland?
GD: He actually didn’t! We made 6 changes from the side who beat Lincoln 6-0 the weekend before. If you had seen our WhatsApp group at 7pm, we were all annoyed that we were going to go out with a whimper and prioritise the league. The players selected are all capable performers, but our success of a few seasons back was built upon showing sides from higher divisions what we had to offer and I was concerned that we weren’t going to do that.
Sam Long, Elliott Moore, Rob Hall, George Thorne, Shandon Baptiste and Anthony Forde had all been fairly peripheral figures up until that point, but the performance was a really pleasant surprise and the result fully deserved. I think we will make changes to the eleven again. Brannagan and Cadden have injuries after the weekend so there will be enforced changes, while Elliott Moore will again get a chance at centre back. Shandon Baptiste has top class potential and will hopefully fill Brannagan’s boots. I would go as strong as possible because the chance to put Oxford United into a quarter-final doesn’t come around too frequently, but I think Robinson will put his faith in a few of the players who showed up so well against West Ham.
MC: Oxford are in red-hot form whilst Sunderland are struggling to gain consistency - which team do you think will be going in the hat for the quarter-final draw?
GD: It’s hard to say without knowing how strong both managers are planning to go, but I wouldn’t back against Oxford regardless of the opposition at the moment. I hope there’s a big crowd there who all view this game as one of the significance that I do. If we play as we have been, I make us favourites. There’s a tendency to expect failure whenever Oxford United are on the verge of something excellent, but this team haven’t let us down much in recent weeks. Oxford... just.