After drawing their first match of 2020 away to Fleetwood, Sunderland’s first match at the Stadium of Light this year is against Michael Appleton’s Lincoln City FC.
Lincoln were promoted last season from League Two under Danny Cowley, before he moved to Huddersfield earlier this season. Lincoln’s current manager Michael Appleton was victorious against Sunderland in his first home match, winning 2-0 thanks to a Tyler Walker brace.
Sunderland currently sit 13th in League One, whilst our opponents are placed three places below in 16th. Phil Parkinson’s confidence will be boosted by Lincoln’s dreadful away form, the Imps have just won twice on the road, losing nine.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Lincoln fan Gary Hutchinson from The Stacey West blog, we discussed how Michael Appleton’s side have progressed since beating us in October, as well as what we can expect from them during the match.
MC: When the two sides last met, Lincoln’s 2-0 victory led to the sacking of Jack Ross as Sunderland manager - how have Lincoln progressed under Michael Appleton since that result?
GH: That was our first win under Michael and it felt like a big moment; since then we’ve had to settle into a rhythm. It hasn’t been easy either, we’ve had some tough results not least drawing 1-1 at Wimbledon after leading for most of the game.
However, a break around FA Cup 2nd round time really helped; thanks to Bury and a postponement we had three weeks without a game and since that Michael’s ideas are starting to shine through. We’ve won four of our last six, beating Ipswich, Peterborough and Burton away as well as Tranmere. Even the defeats, Coventry and Oxford away, were narrow 1-0’s which we could have drawn.
This is a journey and when we played you last, we didn’t know how it would begin to pan out. I think we’re seeing the early structure of a new approach and it’s very exciting.
MC: After beating Peterborough 2-1 on New Years Day, Lincoln sit 16th in League One, but they are only six points away from the playoff positions in what is an incredibly tight league - what are your aspirations for the rest of the season?
GH: That would depend on who you ask. Our local radio station keep mentioning proximity to the play offs and that’s fair enough, but for me outside the bottom three is the minimum we must achieve. I feel perhaps 13th or around there would be a great finish considering the upheaval we’ve been through, but who knows? This is a tight league and beating Posh and Ipswich over the last few days has proven we can mix it with the supposed best sides in the division.
The real test comes against the other also-rans: Shrewsbury, Rochdale, Accrington etc. They’re the sides we need to prove we can deal with now.
MC: Whilst Lincoln possess an excellent home record, away from home results have been few and far between. Do you think playing at the Stadium of Light will be a daunting task for many of the Lincoln players having struggled so much away from him?
GH: No. I don’t think the issue is the surroundings, I think it’s been who we’ve played and how those teams have approached the game. We’ve been to Coventry, Oxford, Rotherham, Doncaster, Blackpool and Wycombe, all sides who have been around the top six. We have beaten Burton and Rotherham on our travels, but we deserved something from almost every game we’ve played away, bar Gillingham and Wycombe.
I think the issue has been simply settling into the new manager’s way of playing. Look at it this way; we went to Huddersfield and won in the cup, we narrowly lost to Everton in the FA Cup last year. I feel that the bigger the stage, the more of a threat we are.
MC: On-loan Nottingham Forest striker Tyler Walker has been absolutely brilliant so far at Lincoln scoring 11 goals. I mentioned him in a recent article looking at potential January signings - are you fearful Forest may recall him to sell or to loan to an alternative club?
GH: I have no fear about that. I’m told the deal didn’t include a recall and it can only be terminated if it is in our interests. That might not be accurate, you know what it is like with people supposedly being ‘in the know’, but I’m not overly worried.
I also feel if we do lose players like Walker, or Joe Morrell, Michael Appleton has the contacts and respect in the football world to attract players of an equal calibre.
MC: Lincoln announced the signing of Ireland under-21 international Zachary Elbouzedi from Waterford recently, what are you expecting him to add to the team and do you think he will make his debut against Sunderland on Saturday?
GH: He’s one for the future. Michael Appleton has already said he understands to progress we must become a trading club and this is the first sign that he’s hunting exciting talent.
I do expect to see him from the bench, but much depends on his current fitness and how quickly he’s settled into training. What I do believe is he’s got a big future ahead of him and maybe a part to play in the last five months of the season.
MC: With the January transfer window now available Sunderland are expecting to have a very busy month. Where do you think Lincoln need to strengthen and are you fearful that Championship clubs could come in for your best players?
GH: There’s always a fear someone will grab your players, look at Josh Maja for you last season. Sadly, that’s football, it is inevitable. However, I’m not worried that we’re going to be torn apart, no. We’re in the lower half of the table and other than perhaps Harry Toffolo, I can’t see which of our lads Championship clubs would rate highly enough to take. Some of our key players are 30 and above and they’re unlikely to be nabbed. If Jorge Grant or Harry Anderson were taken we’d get good fees and I have every faith MA would invest wisely.
I think MA has suggested five new faces, almost certainly attacking players will be on the bill, plus a ball-playing centre half.
MC: Since Phil Parkinson’s appointment as Sunderland manager the club has fallen from 5th to 13th in League One, as well as being knocked out of all three cup competitions - from an outside perspective are you surprised by how poorly the beginning of his tenure at the club has been?
GH: I haven’t been, no. I write for a few different websites and have watched Sunderland for a while now. I actually feel Jack Ross was dealt with quite harshly; you’d lost something like two matches before he left. I think most of football understand the issues you have up there. Money is tight, the owner never had the clout to buy his way out of the division and the gamble last season didn’t pay off.
I do fear for you over the next few months. I’m not sure Phil Parkinson’s ethos fits with what your fans expect. That’s all well and good if you’re Rochdale and only get 4,000 each week, but the pressure of 30,000 fans expecting must weigh very heavy. Success will return, but I fear it won’t be under the current boss.
MC: Who are the eleven players you expect Michael Appleton to select against Sunderland and what style of play can we expect to see during the match?
GH: Vickers (GK), Eardley, Toffolo, Bostwick, Shackell ©, Morrell, O’Connor, Grant, Anderson, Hesketh and Walker. It’ll be 4-4-1-1, perhaps Cian Bolger will keep his place instead of Jason Shackell.
We’ll play out from the back, look to stretch the game but fight hard for everything. It’ll be a good game, especially as you’ll be looking to come at us. We are at our best when sides look to win matches, rather than stifle them.
MC: Lastly, do you think Lincoln can do the double over Sunderland or are you expecting Parkinson’s team to take the points?
GH: I can see all three outcomes. It’s hard to predict matches like this; my head says Sunderland should be beating Lincoln City at home. That said, we’re top of the form guide and pose plenty of threat, but the games have come thick and fast and perhaps fatigue will play a factor. I’m going to go with a draw because I think your quality and our character will cancel each other out.
You can read all of Gary’s Lincoln content online on The Stacey West website!