After drawing 0-0 with Doncaster on Friday night, Sunderland travel to Birkenhead where they will face Mickey Mellon’s Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.
Phil Parkinson’s men are currently unbeaten in eight games and have found their way back into the playoff positions. The match will be a must win for Sunderland ahead of crucial fixtures against fellow promotion rivals Portsmouth and Ipswich.
Tranmere sit in the relegation zone after a shocking run of five matches without a win, but Rovers did surprisingly knock Premier League side Watford out of the FA Cup last week before losing 6-0 to Manchester United on Sunday.
Mickey Mellon was linked with the Sunderland job earlier this year after guiding his Tranmere side to consecutive promotions from the National League to League One.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to co-host of This Is Tranmere podcast, Paul Harper. We discussed how his team are coping in League One, their FA Cup success, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect to see during the match.
MC: Earlier this season Sunderland annihilated Tranmere 5-0 at the Stadium of Light in what has been the highlight of Phil Parkinson’s tenure as manager - are you concerned that in your current wretched run of form that another hammering could be on the way?
PH: Recent results in the league have not been too good, but we’ve had a fair bit of success in the FA Cup, so we’re hopeful that the players can draw lots of confidence from that to take into our remaining league games.
Of course, when a side has beaten you heavily, there is a worry they will do it again, but I think the manager and players will have learned lessons from that night at the Stadium of Light and we’ll see a better display and closer game this time around.
MC: A significant cause for their concern heading into the fixture is the state of the pitch at Prenton Park - why is it in such a bad state and do you expect fixtures to be postponed before the season concludes?
PH: The pitch is awful, you cannot sugar coat it I’m afraid. It looks worse than how it plays, but it’s far from ideal. As Micky Mellon has stated in some of his interviews recently, away sides should be thankful they only have to play on it once! We’re having to do it on a regular basis, and it is only likely to get worse.
The reason for it getting in such a state... well, it’s a combination of things. There is a lot of games played on it, and some of those were during a spell of rainy weather which just made it a bit of a mud bath.
The bad weather recently has not helped as the pitch doesn’t drain very well, but the ground staff are doing their best to ensure games go ahead and the surface is as good as can be. It is what it is and we just have to get on with it until the close season when, hopefully, some of the issues concerning the drainage can be resolved.
MC: Although Tranmere have failed to win in five League One matches, Mickey Mellon’s team did knock Premier League side Watford out of the FA Cup before being hammered 6-0 by Manchester United. Although you lost the game, how enjoyable was it to see your team play Manchester United and what will the revenue do for the club?
PH: It was a good occasion to have arguably the biggest club in the world visit Prenton Park. Was it enjoyable? To a degree. I don’t like losing and to get beat 6-0 is not all that enjoyable. But they’ve got great quality and our season won’t be defined by losing to a team like Manchester United.
The cup run has brought in some much-needed revenue that will hopefully help us move forward. In the short term, it can help the manager strengthen the squad before the window closes, and in the longer term it can be used to fix issues like the pitch and improve the infrastructure at the club.
MC: Tranmere currently sit 21st in League One, well in front of Southend and Bolton, but three points from away from safety. Are you confident the club can beat the likes of MK Dons, Wimbledon and Accrington to achieving survival?
PH: I still remain confident we can beat the drop. We have had a horrendous injury list this season, hopefully some of those players will soon be back and available and that will improve the team. Also, with the cup run, we might see one or two good additions coming in as well. It is going to be a battle, but I do still believe it’s one we can win.
MC: One player who has attracted significant credit within League One media is Tranmere centre-back Manny Monthe - how important is he to the team and are you concerned offers may come in for him before the transfer window closes?
PH: Manny is an excellent player and it is no surprise to see other clubs interested in him. He is very important and so hopefully we can keep hold of him for the remainder of the season. Should he leave, it is a big hole to fill in the heart of the defence.
MC: So far during this transfer window Tranmere have signed three players: Alex Woodyard (Peterborough), Peter Clarke (Fleetwood) and Luke McCullough (Doncaster). Where do you think the club needs to strengthen in order to achieve survival?
PH: Clarke and Woodyard look really good signings for us and have done well in the brief time they have been in the side. Luke McCullough is a really good player but on his way back from a serious injury, so I am not sure what kind of impact he may have.
We have also signed Kane Wilson on loan for a second time until the end of the season, and if he can stay fit, he adds quality too. In terms of elsewhere, personally I think we need a bit of creativity in the midfield and a bit of a target man up top, particularly given our playing surface.
MC: When we last spoke, I criticised Max Power for his lack of consistency since joining Sunderland. He has since been very impressive as team captain under Phil Parkinson - creating an effective partnership with George Dobson. Has Max always been a player you consider a natural leader from his Tranmere days?
PH: Yes, definitely. Max always took responsibility even in his younger years and had a wise head on his shoulders. I am trying to think back, but I think he may have worn the captain’s armband on occasion during his time at Prenton Park in the first team (don’t quote me on that!). He is a great lad and a very good player, so I am pleased to hear he is doing well and is back in the side.
MC: Who are the eleven Tranmere players you expect Mickey Mellon to pick and what style of play can Sunderland expect to face?
PH: The pitch dictates to a degree, but I think Rovers will look to use the pace out wide with Blackett-Taylor who has been really good in the last couple of games. Him and Ferrier are the main attacking threats and appear to be working quite well together, although not strictly speaking a partnership as such.
We will try and pass it around but there will be some balls into the channels, too, for Ferrier to chase and play off the shoulder of the centre backs.
Davies (c); Caprice, Clarke, Monthe, Ridehalgh; Danns, Woodyard, Jennings; Morris, Ferrier, Blackett-Taylor.
MC: Lastly, are you expecting another thrashing, or will Tranmere clinch a shock victory to move out of the bottom three?
PH: This is a massive game for us - arguably far bigger than the Manchester United game at the weekend.
We need to start picking up points, and Prenton Park needs to be a bit of a fortress. The supporters will get right behind the team and it’s another game we’re looking forward to. If we play the way we can, it’ll be a good close game.