After winning our last two games against Sheffield United and MK Dons, The Lads travel to Lincolnshire where they will face Lincoln City at Sincil Bank. Sunderland currently sit fifth in League One, whilst the Imps have dropped to 13th in table after failing to win in their last five games.
It will be the first time the sides have met in the 21st century - just three seasons ago Sunderland were playing Premier League football against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. On the other hand, Lincoln won the National League, beating the likes of Gateshead and York City. Now the teams meet on equal terms as League One clubs.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Lincoln fan Gary Hutchinson of the ‘Stacey West blog’ to discuss what we can expect from the Imps in what will be Michael Appleton’s first League One home match as manager of his club.
MC: It would be fair to say Lincoln’s excellent start to the season was hindered by several Championship clubs’ pursuit of the Cowley brothers - are you frustrated that their future was not sorted in the summer after three fantastic seasons under their tenure?
GH: No, their future was not something that could be sorted. They had two years left on their deal and the suggestion was that they’d honour that deal. However, they are both ambitious and looking back the writing was on the wall for a while. I suspect budget limitations led to their decision as much as anything; we don’t have the sort of money you need to be a top six side at this level.
They might not get a chance to step up again and if the bad run we’re on now had happened under their tenure, perhaps they would have seen their stock fall. I don’t blame them for taking the job, I know that’s not a view shared by everyone but they owed us nothing. The anger some fans feel will subside over time and eventually they’ll take their place as real legends of the club, which they are.
MC: After three games Lincoln were top of League One with nine points and looked credible contenders for back to back promotions. What are the main reasons for your awful results since which have plummeted yourselves to midtable?
GH: The upheaval is the main issue. We had a rhythm and a purpose but as soon as the rumblings started that was that. We lost at MK Dons and Doncaster when the fixture congestion kicked in, that’s not an excuse but both were games we could have won. After that, the Huddersfield links came up and it felt as though maybe, just maybe the manager took his eye off the ball. We lost at Wycombe when the rumour was he’d said goodbye to the staff, then he left on the Monday; we lost against Bristol Rovers and Oxford after as well as putting in an average display against Rochdale.
Had we not been going through turmoil we’d have beaten Bristol who were poor, probably earned a win against Rochdale and still lost to Oxford; they were excellent. We matched Blackpool for large parts too, but confidence has been low. We need to adjust quickly to the new era.
MC: Michael Appleton was strongly linked with the Sunderland job last season following his compelling tenure at Oxford. Although he has lost his first two games in charge, what do you think he will bring to the club and do you believe he can deliver success?
GH: He’ll bring a different direction, that’s for sure. He has to - the success of the last few years is unsustainable. It’s been tremendous but we were never going to go up again, the pundits read it wrong.
Michael Appleton is a good coach and will be able to work with the players on the training ground to help bring a different element out of them. Managers have set ideas and preconceptions which is inevitable, so he’ll offer some a chance to reinvent themselves.
Most of all, he brings very different experiences to the last manager. We got along being the plucky underdog, fighting together and all that. It worked well, but Appleton brings top flight playing experience, he brings massive reserves of managerial experience and he’s well connected. I think our transfer policy will be impacted too; he’s going to be able to pull in favours from all over.
MC: Appleton made eight changes as Lincoln lost 1-0 against Manchester United U23’s in the EFL Trophy on Tuesday. The competition divides opinion amongst Sunderland fans; are you frustrated that you’re likely to be knocked out or do you see the tournament as needless fixture congestion?
GH: Neither really. We won it two years ago and had our day out, so going out isn’t a huge bother. What it does do is cut down on the chance for fringe players to get a run out. The talk of fixture congestion is crazy when most teams make so many changes; the real problem comes when playing Saturday/Tuesday in the competition that matters.
I like the EFL Trophy, it gave us our Wembley appearance and it gives the reserve lads a chance to impress. What’s not to like? Sure, if you get on it can lead to a pile up later on in the season which is bad if you’re pushing for promotion, but if you’re midtable with little to play for it brings a chance of some success.
MC: On the back of wholesale changes being made on Tuesday night, who are the eleven players who you think will start against Sunderland and how do you expect Lincoln to approach the match tactically?
GH: We’ll be 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, depending on how high the attacking player plays. Very similar to you, but where O’Nien played this weekend we’ll have Jack Payne. He can get alongside Walker up top to make us 4-4-2, or drop deep to match your line up.
Our main threat will be down your defensive right. Harry Toffolo is a cracking left back, when you were looking earlier in the year I was surprised he hadn’t been mentioned. He can play in a 3-5-2, or in a flat four man defence. The likely shout is Harry Anderson on the right, but this will be Michael Appleton’s first competitive squad with a fortnight behind him; expect the unexpected.
MC: The Imps were obliterated 6-0 at home against Oxford in your last game at Sincil Bank. Do you think that result has placed heavy pressure on the players to get a result against Sunderland and prevent another hammering?
GH: Obliterated is a fair assessment. I’d counter by saying that Sunderland tend to get a goal, maybe two and then protect the lead, so I don’t have a huge fear about us being pumped this weekend.
Let’s face it, in football there’s always a pressure not to get hammered, whether you’ve won eight on the trot or lost eight on the trot. That result means little now, there’s been games since and it won’t make a difference this weekend.
MC: Lincoln signed striker Tyler Walker on loan from Nottingham Forest, who was heavily linked with Sunderland before we signed Marc McNulty. He has already scored five league goals this season - how important has he been to your team’s results this season?
GH: Massive; we only have two strikers on our books and he’s the main one. It’s going to be interesting to see how Michael Appleton get’s him scoring more goals.
Was there a striker you weren’t linked with? Marquis, Shankland, Ladapo, McNulty, Walker.... to be fair Tyler Walker is a cracking player and would have suited your style of play. He’s not unlike Josh Maja in my opinion, although I didn’t see Maja all that often.
MC: Over the past three seasons Lincoln have won: National League, EFL Trophy, League Two as well as reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. What were the main factors which led to your team being so successful throughout that period, and how thrilling has it been as a fan to witness all that success?
GH: It’s been a wonderful journey and as I’ve already mentioned it was a unique blend of hard work and playing the underdog. There was always someone spending more, always a bigger club for us to claim should be ahead of us. The only exception was towards the end of last season when we were clear favourites and that showed in results; we stumbled to the title.
I’m loathe to look back too much right now though because it’s all so recent, but it’s also over; we won’t win a trophy this year. That’s pretty much fact. Yes, it’s been incredible but it’s like the end of a relationship. I’d find it hard to tell you how much I loved an ex if we’d just split up and it’s the same now. The best way to deal with it is to look forward, not back.
MC: The last time Sunderland played Lincoln was in the FA Cup back in 1999 - the Black Cats won 1-0 courtesy of a Gavin McCann goal. What is your honest prediction of the final score on Saturday?
GH: I remember that game, didn’t a lad called Michael Gray suffer a bad leg break? I was Imps’ mascot that day and got punched by one of your fans. You could read all about it in my book available on Amazon, ‘Suited and Booted’, telling of my life as Imps’ mascot. Quick plug there!
Contrary to what I’ve said above, I think you do have a big win coming soon. The trick for us is to avoid it and turn the resentment many of your fans feel towards Jack Ross to our favour. If we can score early, or keep it level until 60 or 70 minutes, I think we can get a result. I don’t see us winning, you’re very tough to actually beat, but dare I say a 1-1 draw would be in our reach if we can frustrate.