After beating MK Dons 1-0 last Saturday, Sunderland face Darren Moore’s Doncaster Rovers in our first night match at the Stadium of Light in 2020.
After an intense period of scrutiny, Phil Parkinson seems to have turned his fortunes around as Sunderland are unbeaten in seven League One matches which have helped the club rise to 6th in the table.
On the other hand, Doncaster are placed in 9th but do have two games in hand on many of their rivals. Darren Moore’s side share the accolade with Sunderland of having conceded the least amount of goals so far this season.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to journalist Paul Goodwin of the Doncaster Free Press, who interestingly is a former Sunderland season ticket holder. We discussed how Doncaster have progressed under the management of Darren Moore, as well as whether the club have what it takes to achieve promotion.
MC: Sunderland’s most on-form player presently is Lynden Gooch, who played 10 times on loan at Doncaster back in 2016, the American international has scored four in his last five games - do you think Donny’s defence will be capable of handling his pace and power?
PG: Gooch made no impression in a struggling team during that loan spell and by all accounts wasn’t fully fit.
I got the feeling he was keen to prove a point in front of the Doncaster fans last month - and he was Sunderland’s most dangerous player on the day.
As a Sunderland fan myself his development has been very pleasing to see.
Rovers will need to get tighter on him than they did at the Keepmoat Stadium and at least try and prevent him cutting inside.
MC: Sunderland’s decision to sell Reece James to Doncaster and replace him with Leeds reject Laurens De Bock prompted intense scrutiny from supporters - how has the former Man Utd left-back performed so far this season?
PG: He has pretty much carried on from where he left off at Sunderland: nothing too flash but very dependable, consistent and capable of putting a decent ball in the box.
MC: Many pundits thought that Darren Moore was extremely unlucky to lose his job at West Brom, since his appointment as Doncaster manager how has he performed following on from the work of Grant McCann?
PG: Moore’s worked wonders to get Doncaster anywhere near the play-offs. He’s had to build virtually a new team with limited resources.
Only three players who started last season’s play-off semi-final second leg at Charlton remain at the club and John Marquis, who led the line so effectively, has not been properly replaced.
Moore has got Rovers organised, hard to break down and they are capable of playing some decent stuff.
He has an affinity with the club from his playing days and has talked about a long-term project but there is a real danger of a bigger club poaching him, especially if he is not backed in the transfer market.
MC: Donny are currently placed 9th in the League One table, four points away from the play-off positions with two games in hand on many other teams - do you believe that he possesses the quality to push for promotion?
PG: Two or three attacking additions were required this month to really push on.
However, much to the fans’ frustration, there have been no incomings to date, despite back-up strikers Alfie May and Kwame Thomas being allowed to leave.
Rovers have a good first XI and possess the quality to beat anyone at this level on their day - most notably they have beaten Rotherham, Oxford and won 3-0 at Peterborough on Boxing Day.
But the squad currently lacks the required depth for a top six finish. If they are chasing the game, Moore has very few options from the bench.
MC: The best two teams defensively in League One are Sunderland and Doncaster, with both conceding only 24 goals so far this season, what are the main factors behind Moore’s team being so effective at the back?
PG: Centre back Tom Anderson has been superb. A proper no-nonsense defender.
Goalkeeper Seny Dieng, on loan from QPR, has had a calming influence.
Moore’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation is also more conservative than the 4-3-3 attacking style preferred by former boss Grant McCann.
The extra protection provided by Ben Sheaf and Ben Whiteman sitting in front of the back four has made a difference.
MC: Sunderland’s sole transfer during this window so far has been striker Kyle Lafferty, are you expecting Doncaster to bring in some reinforcements and do you think the club will be fearful of losing some of their best players?
PG: There is likely to be a backlash from supporters, and rightly so, if Rovers fail to add a striker to their ranks this month.
Young Niall Ennis, on loan from Wolves, has put his heart and soul into it but needs someone to share his workload up top.
League One is wide open and Rovers are right in the mix so their dilly-dallying in the transfer market is strange.
Personally I’m not convinced they are willing to pay the going rate for a proven marksman at this level. They are most likely to get someone in on loan or wait until the summer for a free agent.
I don’t anticipate any more departures this month although there have been a few rumours about winger Kieran Sadlier, who is out of contract in the summer and yet to sign a new deal.
MC: 39-year-old midfielder James Coppinger has been at Doncaster since 2004, making over 600 appearances across his tenure - how at 39 is he still both starting and playing a lead role within the Doncaster team?
PG: Good question - he never gives away any of his secrets!
Copps mainly puts it down to his mental wellbeing and the fact he is still enjoying his football.
He’s a class act, a joy to watch and his touch and composure knits the midfield with attack.
He’s on course to play more minutes this season than last and he’ll play on till he’s 40 at least, no problem.
MC: Tottenham Hotspur forward Kaz Sterling has recently had his loan spell at Doncaster cut short, the young striker barely featured for Sunderland last season during a loan spell - was it a case that he was simply not good enough for the first-team?
PG: No, not all. In four appearances he scored one goal and showed plenty of promise.
He went off with a ‘dead leg’ against Rotherham in early September but the injury turned out to be more complicated than originally thought.
MC: Who are the eleven Doncaster you expect Darren Moore to select and what style of play can Phil Parkinson expect to face?
PG: 4-2-3-1: Dieng; Halliday, Wright, Anderson, James; Sheaf, Whiteman; Sadlier, Coppinger, Taylor; Ennis.
Rovers like to play out from the back, play through the thirds and break quickly on teams.
They can control the game if they are given time and space but have found it difficult against teams that press high.
MC: Sunderland beat Doncaster 2-1 in December, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
PG: Sunderland certainly appear to have the edge on paper. Doncaster really struggled to handle their tenacity and physicality just a few weeks ago.
I hope Rovers make more of a game of it than last season when they went into their shells at the Stadium of Light. They have the ability to spring a surprise but I’m struggling to see anything other than a home win. 2-1.