After suffering a horrendous defeat last Saturday at the hands of Lincoln, Sunderland begin their EFL Trophy group stage campaign at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday against League Two side Grimsby Town.
Jack Ross’s men made it all the way to the final last season where they were defeated on penalties by Portsmouth, with Lee Cattermole missing the decisive penalty. Grimsby failed to advance from the group stage last season - the Mariners were defeated 2-1 by Scunthorpe last month in their opening match of this year’s tournament. The last time the two sides met was all the way back in 1999 during Sunderland Second Division triumph under Peter Reid, the lads won 2-0 courtesy of goals from Kevin Phillips and Lee Clark.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Grimsby fan Simon Stephenson to discuss how the Mariners have performed so far this season, as well as the current structure of the EFL Trophy.
MC: Ethan Robson has enjoyed a brilliant start to his loan spell at Grimsby, scoring a brace in your 3-1 victory away at Exeter last month. Many Sunderland fans were surprised to see Robson not included in Jack Ross’ plans - do you think he should be playing League Two football?
SS: With what we have seen of Ethan he is more than capable in playing in League One. Ethan has had a great start with Grimsby. We had heard good things about him on social media from Sunderland fans. It took him a few games to get going as I think fitness was initially an issue. He is now a regular starter with a great left foot and isn’t afraid of a good old fashion tackle either. If he keeps impressing in League Two we may struggle to keep him longer than the initial January loan.
MC: Another player who Sunderland loaned to Grimsby is Elliot Embleton - he has struggled for minutes this season after an impressive spell away from the club last season. How important was Embleton to your team, and do you think he is capable of being a regular first-team player with Sunderland?
SS: Elliot was a revolution at Grimsby and something we hadn’t had for a few years. He is a U19/20 England international and a box to box midfielder with great energy and very comfortable on the ball. We was pleased to keep him for the full season and we had hoped we could sign Elliot permanently. He gives 100% each game and he may have to by his time but I’m sure he will become a regular for yourselves soon.
MC: Grimsby currently sit 9th on what is a very tight League Two table - the club returned to the EFL in 2016 via the National League playoffs. What are your overall aspirations for this season as well as the direction of the club moving forward?
SS: We fell into non-league in 2010 and took us many painful seasons to get back into the EFL. The feel good factor was finally back at Blundell Park and we now have to build on this.
We have a young enthusiastic manager in Michael Jolley that is changing the way that we play game. His inexperience has been an issue with some fans but we just need to look at our local rivals Lincoln City who have climbed the leagues and have done so well under the Cowley brothers (who have now just joined Huddersfield). If we can still be sniffing around the pay-offs with a few games to go, I’m sure many would be happy with that.
MC: Grimsby manager Michael Jolley possesses an interesting CV, having managed in Sweden with AFC Eskilstuna. What has he brought to the club since his appointment, and what style of play can Sunderland expect to face?
SS: He was as expected pretty much unknown to fans but with his ambition to try and take the club forward people warmed to him. He has a specific ethos to the game, brought in a science coach and seems to rely heavily on his assistant Anthony Limbrick.
MJ has brought in a few players from Sweden (Ludvig Ohman, Sebastian Ring and Moses Ogbu) and they seem to have found it quite difficult adapting to the pace of the English game. We now have a target man of James Hanson up front and we tend to play a 4-3-3 formation. We play better when we take control of the ball and pass through the midfield, but with Hanson playing up top there does seem to be a few too many long balls towards him that fans get frustrated in seeing.
MC: Sunderland fans are divided in opinion as to whether or not we should take the EFL trophy seriously this season after it caused heavy fixture congestion last year. Do you expect Jolley to approach the match as if it were a league game or as a fixture to get out of the way?
SS: Grimsby fans have similar views on the competition and this has showed by low attendances home and away as majority of fans have boycotted games regarding the structure and process of the trophy. We do seem to have a mixture of players that can play in numerous positions. So its chance for the gaffer to try some different formations and give the fringe players some game time to be able to stake a claim for a league start.
MC: Although there are rules which prevent EFL club’s making wholesale changes, who are the eleven Grimsby players you expect to start at the Stadium of Light?
SS: I would expect to see about 6 or 7 changes to the team that played against Mansfield in the league. I’d expect something along the lines of… GK- Russell, RB – Hewitt, CB – Pollock, CB – Davis, LB – Ring, CM – Clifton, CM – Whitehouse, CM – Cook, FW – Vernam, FW – Cardwell, FW – Rose, with some youth players on the bench.
MC: The current format of the EFL Trophy has been highly contested due to the inclusion of Premier League and Championship under 23 sides, with many supporters taking part in the “B Team Boycott”. Do you think the tournament is beneficial to younger players or is it damaging the prosperity of lower league football?
SS: I think the initial view was to help the younger players and in turn help develop English players for the future. Every Premier League and Championship team should be involved and I believe there should be a cap of overseas players in each squad. It does give younger players and fringe players a chance to shine for their clubs but I do think the structure still needs changing to get the fans back supporting the competition.
MC: Sunderland were unbeaten at home in this competition last season. What is your honest prediction of the final score?
SS: Both teams have had a good steady start of the season and I’d assume Sunderland will also be giving ‘game time’ to players that may not of featured much this season.
I think you would be too strong for Grimsby and a score line of 3-1 to the Black Cats seems like a safe prediction for me to make!
Do you want Sunderland to take the EFL Trophy seriously this season?
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