Sunderland face Swindon Town at the Energy Check County Ground on Saturday in their fifth match of the 2020/21 League One campaign. Phil Parkinson’s men sit 7th in table after their unbeaten start, whilst Richie Wellens’ team are placed 15th.
It will be the first time the two clubs have met since 1999, where goals from Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn gave Peter Reid’s Sunderland a 2-0 win at the Stadium of Light. Swindon won League Two last season on points-per-game and are one of eight former Premier League clubs currently competing in League One.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Swindon fan Rich Pullen of the Loathed Strangers podcast, to discuss how his side have faired since promotion and what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Swindon won League Two last season via PPG, are the club aspiring to simply survive or is their ambition to challenge for the playoffs this season?
RP: It’s nice to be back in our perhaps rightful home of League One after three seasons in League Two.
Personally, I’m happy for Town to focus on consolidating their place in the third tier but that’s mostly due to the pandemic. Swindon can’t compete with many of the clubs and shouldn’t take any silly risks to attempt a significant push.
However, like many L1 sides, Town could easily threaten the Play-Off places.
MC: The club possess a young management team in Richie Wellens (40) and Noel Hunt (37), what have they brought to the club which has led you to success?
RP: The success of Richie Wellens has been one of the pleasant surprises of the last 5 years or so. There was a reaction of significant disappointment from sections of the fanbase when RW arrived due to owner Lee Power not finding any success with Martin Ling (left due to health reasons), Luke Williams (was ultimately out of his depth), David Flitcroft (ditched Town for Mansfield when the going got tough) and Phil Brown (just didn’t work out) previously. However, Wellens won the majority over by practicing what he preached and improving the standard of football at Swindon.
The relationship with Noel Hunt has been key too. They were not buddies prior to their appointments and luckily it’s worked really well. Having the experienced Tommy Wright as First Team Coach and a former Town player, Steve Mildenhall, as GK coach has helped the cause too.
MC: Swindon have had a very busy summer of recruitment, signing 13 new players including loans, who has been the pick of the bunch so far this season?
RP: So far, the stand-out performer in Arsenal loanee Matt Smith who has been thrown into the deep end somewhat after Michael Doughty left football to focus on his own sustainable shoe company!
Matt Smith has not looked out of place throughout his first few games in senior football. Long may that continue.
MC: Three of those signings all have the last name Smith, in Tyler, Matt and Jonny, I cannot imagine that has been easy for Swindon supporters?
RP: I would say that we’ve coped with the Smith Era thus far. It’s not caused much of an issue.
Funnily enough, Town also signed a Czech goalkeeper called Matej Kovar on-loan from Manchester United and his surname translates in English to Smith/Blacksmith.
MC: Eoin Doyle fired Swindon to promotion last season, scoring 25 goals in 28 games, were you surprised to see him decide to stay in League Two by leaving to join Bolton?
RP: Eoin Doyle had a dream spell at Swindon, almost everything went to plan and it had been a long time since a player united the Town fanbase. It was a remarkably emotive time for Town fans, quite hard to explain.
However, Doyle signing a end-of-the-season deal in January wasn’t the actions of a footballer who was planning to be here for the long haul.
It was clear that Town had to table a sensational offer to keep him in Wiltshire and that the club had been very accommodating previously. There were never any accusations of ’greed’ because we knew of his young family based in Liverpool and at 32 years old, you can’t really turn down a 3 year deal because you had a cracking time at Swindon, can you?
MC: Sunderland and Swindon have both been managed by Paolo Di Canio, are you surprised he has never managed a club since his sacking on Wearside after he won League Two with Swindon?
RP: Ah Paolo. Am I surprised he’s not managed since Sunderland? Absolutely not. Paolo was *heavily* backed at Swindon and when the bubble burst, he left. I won’t be surprised if somebody releases a book based on Di Canio’s Town tenure as it had various levels of impressive craziness.
Sunderland was a sweet gig to move on to but for everything he excelled at in terms of tactical knowledge, analysis and fitness he would compromise with his man management. Stuff that would work in L1/L2 where players are trying to better themselves and progress was always doomed to fail in the Premier League where they’ve already made it to the ‘show’.
Thanks for the memories though, Paolo.
MC: Ex-Premier League manager Paul Jewell was appointed as Swindon’s Director of Football, which is a position many Sunderland have requested, what has he done so far in that role?
RP: From the outside it’s easy to look at Paul Jewell at Swindon and assume it’s a ‘job for the boys’ and I suppose there’s an element to it, but his work in assisting Wellens build a squad has been acknowledged as a big positive by Swindon fans.
We don’t hear from him but I believe he’s the main negotiator when trying to attract players to Swindon. Wellens was also Jewell’s recommendation to be Town’s replacement for Phil Brown.
MC: Who are the eleven Swindon players you predict Wellens to select against Sunderland and what style of play can Parkinson expect to face?
RP: Oof. Well when you listen to Wellens’ presser for this game he’ll list five or six players who are injured and two or three will play, while an unnamed player will miss out! He holds his cards close to his chest.
Based on very little I predict: Kovar; Hunt, Donohue, Baudry, Grounds; A. Grant, M. Smith, J. Smith, Jaiyesimi, Payne, T. Smith.
Town will play a 4-2-3-1 and press hard in the opening quarter of the game. Town’s front four can cause Sunderland damage but defensively Swindon have been very slack thus far to the point that club coaches have acknowledged that Town need to score three or four goals to secure three points.
MC: The two sides haven’t faced one another in the twenty-first century, what is your prediction of the final score on Saturday?
RP: Our lack of head-to-head over the last twenty years is the main reason I’m excited to see Swindon play Sunderland and Ipswich Town during this campaign. It’s a tragedy that fans can’t attend (the date for the away game is a nuisance too) but here we are. It’s so long ago that one of our starters the last time we met, Brian Borrows, turns 60 in December!
Based on form, I’ll happily take a draw. 2-2.