After thrashing Wycombe Wanderers 4-0 at home last weekend, Sunderland will face relegation threatened MK Dons at Stadium MK on Saturday.
Sunderland currently sit 7th in League One following Burton’s win on Tuesday, whilst our opponents are placed in 19th, just three points above Tranmere in the relegation zone.
When the two sides met earlier in the season both sides had different managers, with Jack Ross and Paul Tisdale both facing the sack for failing to meet their objectives. A screamer from Max Power combined with a chip from Luke O’Nien put Sunderland 2-0 up, before Jordan Bowery put the Dons back into the game - Sunderland held on to win 2-1.
Ahead of the match I spoke to MK Dons fan Liam Connolly, we discussed how his team have been performing under their new manager Russell Martin, as well as what Sunderland can expect to face during the match.
MC: MK Dons have been on a run of good form, but currently sit anxiously in 19th position, just 3 points above the relegation zone - are you confident the club can avoid relegation back to League Two?
LC: Yeah I am very confident, depending on if key players can say fit and firing. Attackers Sam Nombe and Rhys Healey have been terrific since their returns, after showing their quality under former manager Paul Tisdale and continuing to do so under his successor Russell Martin.
It will be the classic case of ‘the best form of defence is offence’ as this defence is still showing cracks under new management with Dons POTY so far Lee Nicholls keeping MK in many a game.
Despite the undeserved loss to Burton midweek, I think the home wins over Oxford and Bristol Rovers, as well as the draw in Birmingham against Coventry showed this side is capable with competing against some of the best in the league, and I hope the same will be the case on Saturday.
MC: Your manager Russell Martin is vastly experienced across the top four tiers of English football - were you surprised to see him appointed as manager considering he is aged just 34 and has not managed previously?
LC: I think all were taken by surprise regarding the appointment when they first heard of it. The appointment gave off very Karl Robinson-esque vibes, and all Dons fans know that this was the best time we have had as a football club in our short existence.
Martin had been earning his coach badges whilst playing over the last few seasons, and has his own foundation focused around football and the ‘futsal’ style of the game. Based off that, we knew the attacking football was on its way back, which a lot associate with the ‘MK Dons way’.
The comment of no experience as a manager of course was the main argument going against Martin but Russ has experience in some areas in which some managers will never have. As the question mentions, he was a very experienced player and was a part of this playing squad after all so he knows the majority of them very well, as footballers and people. He is also recruiting characters which I have been crying out for managers to do for years as talent can only get you so far so this is also a breath of fresh air.
He has been helped by the addition of Luke Williams as assistant manager, formerly of Swindon and Bristol City U23s who is well-renowned for being one of the better tactical coaches about in the lower leagues and it has been clear to see his impact on the squad.
MC: On the topic of managers, former MK Dons manager Karl Robinson has been linked with the vacant Malaga job in the second tier of Spanish football. He enjoyed a brilliant six year spell with the club - do you think he would be successful managing abroad if the move happened?
LC: Karl Robinson has always spoken about wanting to manage abroad, and for sure this is his best chance yet but I think he would be crazy to leave this Oxford side.
They are poised, for me anyway to get promoted this season with a very talented side. His recruitment this window has been great which included Nathan Holland from West Ham, who I have been very vocal about in terms of his talent and how he should have gone to the Championship this window. It could play out very similar to how his former MK Dons side did in terms of losing talent and failing to replace it, but this time would be his second time in the second division, which could help a lot.
In the 15/16 season, I remember Robinson signing two youngsters for MK Dons from Real Madrid in Sergio Aguza and Christian Benavente. These were Robinson’s first real dips in to the European market and have been since (if you do not count Liam Kelly this window) as both deals failed to pay off at the time, with Benavente now playing in Ligue 1 with Nantes. That for me would be Robinson’s biggest struggle in managing abroad. He would need a good recruitment team behind him for sure, as I feel his coaching style and philosophies would fit fine. Very much the case of right place wrong time for Karl.
MC: Will Grigg’s tenure at Sunderland has been nothing short of underwhelming so far, he has been linked with loan moves away to Blackpool and Salford, do you think MK Dons could be tempted to try and bring him back to the Stadium MK?
LC: I feel as though the striking options we have up top are currently more than sufficient so Grigg would not be a smart business move for the club.
I think his apparent reluctance to drop down to L2 and Salford is a bit of an silly decision on his part as a half-season in the English fourth tier could rejuvenate his scoring form and see him gain some second wind. Salford are the only team who can afford his wages really in League Two. It could come down to the fact that he may not have a choice and does make the move. Either way I hope he takes it with both hands as he was a brilliant player for us and always is appreciated by the Dons faithful.
MC: With a relegation battle on the cards, do you expect the club to bring in some reinforcements this month and are concerned that any of your best players will leave the club?
LC: We have already made two signings this window in striker Carlton Morris on loan from Norwich, who has made an impact since joining, scoring on his debut and Ben Gladwin on an free transfer from Blackburn Rovers, who is still working his way back to full fitness.
I think a few more reinforcements will be brought in, but at the expense of players heading the other direction. We have too much deadweight in this squad following the change of management and it needs moving on ASAP. I would expect two more signings this window for the Dons if all goes to plan. A centre mid that can play at the bottom of the diamond that can control the game and a centre back of the right one becomes available would be my guesses at positions.
MC: Kieran Agard scored 20 league goals for MK Dons last season in League Two, but has only scored two in League One - do you think your current team just lack quality overall in the final third?
LC: Me and a few other Dons fans were very vocal in our opinion of not re-signing Agard in the summer, as he was a free agent for a short period in the offseason. Those opinions have been fully justified as well as not scoring frequently enough, he has been demoted to our 5th choice striker and from my eyes, is actively seeking a move away from Stadium MK.
I feel we have the quality in the final third with the quartet of Mason, Nombe, Healey and Morris to not only steer us clear from relegation but also to a respectable mid-table finish in the league. Perhaps a lack of clinical shooting could be the issue, which can only be trained in to these group of players. Martin has been very open in saying he his happy with those four names mentioned above and I think the fans feel the same way too.
MC: Dele Alli is MK Dons’ record player sale at £5m, after coming under intense scrutiny earlier this season he seems to have rediscovered his form under Jose Mourinho - do you think he will be part of England’s Euro 2020 squad come the end of the season?
LC: It has been a very turbulent season for Dele with all the manager chances and injuries to himself and players around him but I feel he still has a good chance to make the squad.
Dele and Son have always worked well up top in the absence of Harry Kane and as most of social media knows, Jose seems to have made Dele of one his main focuses in his side. Dele will need to be one of the guys who needs to step up for Spurs and I am confident he will.
Dele probably plays in the position where England are the most rich for talent. James Maddison, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount can all make cases for their spots in the squad come summertime. I would imagine that three of those four make the squad. Dele takes up one of those spots. Maddison also is a cert for the squad just because of his form for Leicester this season. Then it comes down to Grealish and Mount which for me is easily Jack, despite him not having a cap for England yet, mostly for his versatility and leadership. Mount shows too many inconsistencies at the moment for me.
MC: Who are the eleven MK Dons players you predict Russell Martin will select and what style of play can Sunderland expect to face?
LC: Martin has been interchanging between the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond and the 4-3-3 since taking over as manager. I think with how we played at Burton midweek, and the fact Sunderland play what looks to be a 3-4-3, I feel the 4-3-3 is the more likely option.
It could be harsh to drop new recruit Morris but I feel there has to be some sort of rotation after playing on Tuesday.
Nicholls (GK), Brittain, Williams, Walsh, Lewington (C), Houghton, Gilbey, McGrandles, Mason, Nombe, Healey.
MC: Sunderland beat MK Dons 2-1 at the Stadium of Light in late September - what is your honest prediction of the final score on Saturday?
LC: I predicted a 3-2 win for Sunderland back in September, when I thought MK would give the Black Cats a good game, but ultimately fall short. I give us as much of a chance this time around, if not more.
Sunderland themselves picked up a big three points against Wycombe last time out and will be backed by a big following. The Dons have been tremendous themselves for the most part under Martin, especially the last four-five matches in the league.
I think it will be a entertaining game which will finish as a 1-1 draw, although I could see either side winning if a big decision goes their way.