Tuesday night’s defeat to Fleetwood Town ended any small glimmer of hope we had of attaining automatic promotion, meaning Saturday’s game at Roots Hall means very little to Sunderland other than acting as a chance to gain some momentum going into the play-offs.
Portsmouth’s surprising home defeat to Peterborough means that there’s still a chance we could move into third and secure a more favourable semi-final tie, as opposed to a potential trip to London to face in-form Charlton Athletic.
That aside, Jack Ross and the fans were incredibly unhappy with Tuesday’s performance at the Highbury Stadium, and both supporters and manager will be demanding a win on Saturday in front of the watching Sky TV cameras to help ease any play-off nerves.
State of play...
From a Sunderland perspective, all there is to play for is league position. We could finish anywhere between third to fifth and, as we know, that position decides which route we have to take to Wembley.
A win over Southend could see us move into third but only if Portsmouth fail to win their home game against Accrington Stanley. If both Sunderland and Portsmouth win we’ll almost certainly finish fourth due to our superior goal difference, and face Charlton on May 12th and 16th.
If we win it’ll be tough for Charlton to catch us, but with the Lads level on points with the Addicks a draw or a defeat means a Charlton win would put them into fourth and give us a more difficult task of getting to Wembley.
Even a draw would be enough to give Lee Bowyer’s side the play-off advantage if we lose.
For Southend, it’s all a bit mad.
In short - if Southend win they are safe, if Southend draw they have to hope Scunthorpe and Plymouth Argyle play out a draw, and hope Walsall don’t win.
If Southend lose, they’re down.
Jack Ross Says...
Partly, there are guidelines about the changes you can make - and rightly so, because you have to be respectful of the whole league and Southend are in a position where they have a lot to play for.
Also, I’ve got a squad that has a lot to play for as well because they will want to be involved in these play-off games.
We’ve got some bumps and bruises from the Fleetwood game, as you can imagine, and there are some players who have played a lot this month, so we will have to take that into consideration.
But we will play the strongest team we possibly can.
Going by what Jack Ross has said there’s an indication that he’ll play “his strongest team possible” - however, there has to be question marks over whether Aiden McGeady will return, if the out of form Lynden Gooch will play and if there’ll be a return for captain George Honeyman.
Ross alluded to players having bumps and bruises from Tuesday night’s defeat, but who is suffering with injury hasn’t been made public, McGeady aside. Tuesday saw an unchanged defence with Tom Flanagan keeping his place in the back four, but a really poor performance from him may mean we see a return for Jimmy Dunne.
In midfield Grant Leadbitter really needs minutes under his belt heading into the play-offs, so we could see a return for the former Academy graduate. Further upfield we’re likely to see Chris Maguire regain his place in a bid to further increase his match fitness. Will Grigg will continue up top, with Ross demanding to see an improvement from his £3m man.
Despite the potential for changes we won’t be surprised if we see an unchanged eleven.
View from the opposition...
Make no bones about it, this game is MASSIVE for The Shrimpers. It’s a game they simply can’t afford to lose. Defeat for Kevin Bond’s side is simply not an option, with relegation confirmed if the Lads take all three points on Saturday.
Despite last week’s disastrous 1-0 defeat to Rochdale it’s likely that Bond will continue with his 3-5-2 formation, but he’s already hinted he’ll bring January signing Stephen Humphrys back into the fold. The striker - who joined from Fulham - has scored four goals in seven games but has been missing for six weeks with facial injuries, and Bond is tempted to bring him back in.
Stephen isn’t fully fit but he does offer us something different.
We will see how he goes in training this week and whether or not he could play a part in some capacity but we’re in desperate need of having everyone available.
Southend sacked manager Chris Powell on 26th March but haven’t benefited from any sort of new manager bounce at all, as new boss Kevin Bond has won only one of his six games in charge, picking up just five points from a possible twenty-one.
As many Sunderland fans will testify, our form is eerily similar.
Despite relegation nerves Roots Hall will see its biggest attendance for almost two-and-a-half years with 9800 fans expected to be at the game, with the away end - as expected - completely sold out.
Last Time We Met
Back in October Sunderland convincingly beat the Shrimpers by three goals to nil, with a first half opener from captain George Honeyman setting the Lads on their way to a simple three points.
The game is perhaps best remembered for a goal of the season contender from crowd favourite Chris Maguire, as well as Aiden McGeady grabbing his first of of the season from the substitutes bench.
However, the last time we played at Roots Hall was quite some time ago - 2006 to be precise. Niall Quinn’s penultimate league game as Sunderland manager saw The Lads go down 3-1 as a brace from Adam Barrett and a late third from Lee Bradbury meant things got desperate on Wearside and we crashed to the bottom of the Championship table.
Within the week Roy Keane was appointed Sunderland manager and the rest, they say, is history...