Sunderland travel to Greater Manchester on Tuesday night where they will face Rochdale in their eighth match of the 2020/21 League One campaign. Phil Parkinson’s men dropped to sixth in the table after a poor 3-1 home defeat to promotion rivals Portsmouth at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
Their opponents have won two consecutive matches, beating Shrewsbury and Burton Albion to move up to 15th. However, Brian Barry-Murphy’s side have failed to pick up a point in the four League One fixtures they have played against Sunderland.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Rochdale fan Col from the Rochdale Supporters Trust to find out how his club have performed so far, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Rochdale avoided relegation by just four points last season - do you think the club could have faced relegated should the season had continued?
CC: I think so. If you look back at last season, we had a dreadful run of games from late October until the end of the year where we lost eight out of nine games. That run came at a time when we were hit by injuries like we’ve never seen before, not so much in terms of numbers, but positionally. I know all teams get injuries but we reached the stage where we couldn’t name two central defenders.
You take that run of games out of the equation and we weren’t that bad a side. We were certainly a side that picked up points, and there was no reason to think that wouldn’t continue had the season played out. Our last game before lockdown saw us ease to victory against Rotherham so we definitely had something about us.
MC: Manager Brian Barry-Murphy is known for his style of possession based football. Does he still have the support of the fanbase?
CC: Definitely. I don’t think that there are many Dale supporters who are unaware that our budget is one of the smallest in the division, so there’s definitely an understanding of the constraints that he’s working under.
He’s been described as someone who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of footballers throughout the leagues. You can see that with the signings we’ve made, recruiting from the National League and National League North.
There’s also definitely been a tweaking of the style of football this year. At times last year, we could rightly be accused of keeping possession simply for possession’s sake. There seems to be a bit more purpose to what we are doing this time around. I think changes in the squad have helped with that.
We had MJ Williams playing for us last year who appeared in one stats list as one of the best passers in League One in terms of passes made, but he struggled to play at any sort of tempo. I think the departure of Ian Henderson has passed on a bit more responsibility to the rest of the team. Last year (and the year before and the year before….) he was such a focal point for us that everything was aimed through.
MC: The club signed 18-year-old Manchester City sweeper keeper Gavin Bazunu on loan this season. How has he performed so far?
CC: He’s done well for us so far. There’s been the odd moment where he’s shown a lack of experience with the odd wobble but he’s more than justified his signing so far. A late save on Saturday was enough to secure the win over Shrewsbury.
You sometimes get young players and you wonder what they’re doing out of school. You don’t get that feeling with Bazunu. As long as he’s getting games and doesn’t disappear in the 80-90 man squad at City, he’s going to have a great career.
MC: Rochdale lost striker Ian Henderson, who dropped to League Two to join Salford despite being just being eight goals away from becoming the club’s record league goal scorer. Were you surprised to see him leave?
CC: Yes and no. When you’ve got a player who has scored goals as regularly and consistently as he has, there are always going to be other teams that will be sniffing around – and, as we know, Salford aren’t exactly short of a bob or two.
But his departure came when he was a couple of goals away from becoming our all-time leading goal scorer. Had it not been for the cancellation of the season, there’s no doubt that he’d have grabbed that record.
MC: To replace him, Dale signed Stephen Humphrys from Southend who had previously been linked with Sunderland. Do you think he is capable of replacing Henderson?
CC: He’s a different style of player but we’re confident that he’ll more than do a job for us. He’s spent time with us on loan before so we know exactly what we’re getting with him. He’s back home in that he comes from just down the road.
It’s just a shame that he picked up an injury in his first game for us as we’ve definitely been missing that sort of player. Hopefully he’ll be back in a couple of weeks and we won’t have to wait too long for him to get among the goals.
MC: Former Sunderland centre-back Paul McShane is still playing League One football with Rochdale at 34. Has he been a good signing since he joined last season?
CC: He’s been great and was exactly what we needed when we signed him. He seems to have bought into everything that we do at Dale, and it no doubt helps that we’ve got such an Irish feel to our team.
You always worry about signing players at the back end of their career and McShane had only played seven games in the previous 22 months when he came to us, but he’s definitely been a positive for us and he’s clearly missed when he doesn’t feature.
MC: Many League One clubs have discussed their sustainability following the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. What financial shape are Rochdale in as a result?
CC: I don’t think any club could turn around and say that they are finding it easy. What has helped is that we have received a decent amount of transfer fees in the past couple of years, and the club had planned for every eventuality for the 2020-21 season, including not having any supporters back at any stage.
There are going to be a lot of clubs struggling, and we might be better placed than others, but that doesn’t make us immune from financial struggle. It doesn’t appear that there is going to be any sort of bail out happening any time soon, whether that comes from the Government or the Premier League. The worry for me is if we find ourselves approaching the 2021-22 season with things no clearer.
MC: Who are the eleven Dale players you think Brian Barry-Murphy will select against Sunderland?
CC: It’ll be the same side that beat Shrewsbury 2-1 on Saturday. We don’t have the numbers for many changes, and already this season there’s been games where you look to the bench and it’s been packed with youth team players. Thankfully, a couple of signings have made things look a lot more promising.
(4-5-1) Bazunu, Keohane, Roberts, O’Connell, Bola; Newby, Ryan, Morley, Lund, Rathbone; Beesley.
MC: Rochdale have lost all four League One fixtures against Sunderland, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
CC: Based on that, I can only predict a Sunderland win can’t I?
Our home form has seen us win one, draw one and lose one, so there’s no indication there. Those games were against Pompey, Fleetwood and Hull so it’s not been the easiest fixture list for those results.
I would expect a reaction to your 3-1 home defeat against Portsmouth, but Sunderland could turn up and just go through the motions against little Rochdale. Stick me down for 1-1.