Sunderland begin their second season in League One on Saturday against Karl Robinson’s Oxford United at the Stadium of Light.
A crowd of over 30,000 is expected as the lads look to start with a win against an Oxford side who drew 1-1 at the SoL last season and went on to finish 12th in League One. Sunderland have several players expected to make their league debuts, including Marc McNulty, who scored a hattrick in our recent 5-2 victory over Hartlepool.
Ahead of the match, Matthew Crichton spoke to BT Sport analyst and huge Oxford fan George Dugdale to find out all about how they’ve fared in pre-season, the signings they’ve made and whether they’re going to come to Wearside the weekend and cause an upset.
MC: Oxford finished 12th last season following a great run of form at the end of the campaign - where do you expect to finish this year?
GD: As it stands, mid-table. That’s probably being a bit optimistic because we still have big holes in the squad, but I am backing it to come together at the end of the window.
My worry would be starting the season as badly as we did last year. It left us with nothing to achieve other than escaping trouble, which hardly felt like an achievement.
We’d like much better this time around but the summer has been a frustrating one.
MC: Having spent almost half the season last year in the relegation, what were the main things Karl Robinson changed which guided yourselves to mid-table?
GD: I think consistency of selection was important, as well as some good recruitment.
Jamie Mackie had been run into the ground and Jerome Sinclair gave us fresher legs when they could rotate. Ahmed Kashi arrived to shield the back four, something we hope Alex Gorrin can do this year. Jordan Graham also gave us an alternative in the final third.
There’s also something in the fact that the squad hugely under-performed in that first half of the season. Hopefully everybody plays to their potential this time around.
MC: Oxford have managed to pull of the shock signing of Wales international Ben Woodburn from Liverpool, were you surprised to see him drop down to League One?
GD: Very! It’s very rare that supporting Oxford and Wales crosses over, but as a result I know exactly what Ben Woodburn is capable of.
He’s got real talent and after 12 months in which he plateaued slightly, he needs regular games to showcase that ability. I suspected someone like Hull (who did so well for Harry Wilson after his own first loan had gone badly) would look after him, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear of the move this week.
It may take a little while to click, but a confidence boosting season would benefit Oxford, Wales and Ben Woodburn.
MC: Jerome Sinclair joined yourselves last year after a failed loan spell at Sunderland - were you disappointed not to see him return this year?
GD: Yes, I was. He seemed to enjoy his time here and we were certainly keen after he made an important contribution last season.
He removed a lot of the workload from Jamie Mackie and his pace was something we had been lacking previously. He has things to improve but he got himself into good goal scoring areas and we were a stronger squad with him around.
He needs to find a permanent home and I thought we’d have been a good place for him to impress and earn a move into the Championship, as so many of our players do.
MC: Two of your best players Curtis Nelson and most recently Gavin Whyte have left to join Cardiff City - do you think this will have a huge impact on the team losing players of their quality?
GD: It depends how they are replaced.
Nelson was a big presence both on the pitch and in the changing room, while I don’t actually feel that we ever saw the very best of Gavin Whyte.
He was adapting to full-time football and although he had some great days, I think next season is the one in which his numbers would have gone through the roof. As it stands, these players haven’t been directly replaced so it’s hard to answer the question.
They need to be good additions because we’ve lost two Championship level players.
MC: Oxford have also signed former Sunderland youth product Alex Gorrin as well as Chris Cadden who we were linked with. Are you happy with your transfer window overall so far?
GD: I think we could still do with more, but it’s been a much better week.
Maybe the panic was a little over the top and if you try to sell it as quality over quantity, maybe we will look back on some of these acquisitions with more fondness.
The keys are Elliott Moore being able to form a partnership with Rob Dickie at the heart of the defence, Alex Gorrin providing the protection to allow Cam Brannagan to bomb forwards and the likes of Forde, Woodburn and Fosu hitting the ground running at the top end of the pitch.
Not much to ask, right?
MC: Right! Last season Oxford drew 1-1 at the Stadium of Light, do you think your team are capable of exceeding expectations once again?
GD: The beauty of the first day of the season is that anything can happen.
I remember going to Pompey’s party after the fans regained control of the club and winning 4-1 at Fratton Park. I also remember being thumped 4-0 at Barnsley last season.
It’s an unpredictable time of the season. It may be a little too much to ask for a hastily assembled spine to gel immediately, but I’d take a repeat of last season’s result to get up and running.
MC: Your manager Karl Robinson ended pre-season having only won 3 of your 9 games - do you think pre-season results matter?
GD: Not when you’ve got a fraction of a squad available.
We’ve been threadbare, to say the least. Lots of young players were involved and the team that kicks off the season were together for precisely none of pre-season!
It’s been nice to have players like Rob Hall and Shandon Baptiste heading back towards first team action after bad injuries, but that epitomises the extent to which this pre-season has felt more of a fitness exercise than an indicator for too much more.
MC: Lastly, what do you think the score will be at full time on Saturday?
GD: I’m always an optimist, but we’ve genuinely never seen these eleven Oxford players kick a ball around together before. It feels like a big ask.
I’ll go for a 3-1 Sunderland win and then begin work on the whole promotion charge once the players know each other’s names a little better!