Sunderland host MK Dons at the Stadium of Light on Saturday in their 11th match of the 2020/21 League One campaign. Phil Parkinson’s team sit sixth in the table, having lost only one of their opening ten league fixtures, and are four points from top with a game in hand.
Russell Martin’s MK Dons are placed further down in 19th after a poor start to the season, but are unbeaten in their last three League One matches. The Dons beat Wigan 2-0, before drawing with both Wimbledon and Northampton, with new signing Scott Fraser standing out since joining from Burton Albion.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to MK Dons fan and freelance writer Martin Atherton, to discuss how their new squad is coming together, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: MK Dons have only won two of their 11 League One matches this season - are supporters beginning to worry about the prospect of relegation to League Two?
MA: There’s certainly a small part of our fanbase beginning to talk about the ‘R’ word, yes - our results have been dire, and we deserve nothing more than lying at the bottom end of the table owing to that.
However, I’m pretty sure that based on the quality of football we’ve seen, we’re a good enough side in a very false position. When the likes of Keogh, Fraser, and Jerome are all up to full fitness in a month’s time, we could be a real force once again!
MC: Aged just 34, Russell Martin was a surprise appointment at MK Dons, do you think the club are happy to allow him time to develop or is his job under threat?
MA: He’ll almost certainly be given a few more months to turn this around. I imagine the board can see that we’re a good footballing side that just lack match sharpness from our key men – we’re unbeaten in four now, though, so the tide may have finally turned a bit.
MC: The club’s marquee signing in the summer was midfielder Scott Fraser, who was previously in talks with Sunderland, what has brought to the team so far this season?
MA: Fraser has been magnificent; it’s very clear to see why so many Championship clubs were chasing his signature! To be quite honest, I have no idea how we ended up with him.
Attacking wise, his quality is something else at this level - but he also chips in defensively and can help maintain the midfield’s shape in between.
He’s still getting himself up to full sharpness as he had little in the way of pre-season, but comfortably looks one of the best players on the pitch week-in-week-out.
MC: Another high profile signing was 34-year-old ex-Premier League forward Cameron Jerome - does he still pose a threat in front of goal?
MA: ‘Cam Jam’ is another who has been exceptional - two goals so far, another very unfairly ruled out in the derby two weeks ago, and an assist on top in just a handful of appearances.
He effortlessly peels off of defenders and makes space for himself in the box, something that works very well with our possession-based style. I certainly wouldn’t be putting it past him to comfortably hit at least 12 league goals this season!
MC: Overall, Martin signed 14 new players in the previous transfer window, which of MK Dons’ new signings have stood out so far?
MA: Jerome and Fraser aside, Richard Keogh has been magnificent for me - we look a completely different side defensively with him in the team, and now he’s nearing full fitness we’re starting to see the clean sheets come in.
Daniel Harvie, signed from Ayr United, is another I’ve been subtly impressed with - he’s away with Scotland this weekend, unfortunately, but he can be an excellent outlet down the left-hand side, both offensively and defensively.
Otherwise, a large portion of our signings were actually players we had last season, either released due to financial reasons and then re-signed or loanees. Carlton Morris can be a real handful on his day up front; Louis Thompson is a good midfield battler; Andrew Fisher, in goal, has performed excellently since coming into the side a few weeks ago.
MC: MK Dons lost star striker Rhys Healey to French second division side Toulouse - do you think EFL lower league sides will start to lose more players to foreign leagues following the introduction of wage caps?
MA: I can certainly see this happening more often! Some of the French clubs especially are very keen to invest in English talent - as you’ll know with Josh Maja.
Despite receiving near on £2m in transfer fees this summer, we still had to make extortionate wage cuts to meet the new rules – incredibly frustrating.
If we’re not able to offer these players competitive salaries, it’ll be no wonder that they start to look abroad to ply their trade.
MC: 36-year-old Dons captain Dean Lewington has been ever present within Martin’s side this season and achieved his 800th career appearance - how special of an achievement is that in modern football?
MA: Lewie making his 800th club appearance in all competitions against Wigan a few weeks ago was something special, and I’m so gutted that fans weren’t able to be there.
Even at age 36, he is still one of the key cogs of our team – an absolute credit to how hard he works on his fitness.
I struggle to imagine we’ll see much like it in football looking forward, but I hope he can be an example to younger players about what can be achieved from club loyalty!
MC: Who are the eleven MK Dons players you believe Martin will select against Sunderland and what style of play can Parkinson’s team expect to face?
MA: We’ll be using a 3-5-2, the two wingbacks typically playing very advanced. I imagine it’ll be along the lines of Fisher; Lewington, Keogh, Williams; Cargill, Kasumu, Fraser, Houghton, Sorinola; Morris & Jerome.
Style of play wise, we’ll have lots of the ball and push teams deep – we’ve typically been seeing at least 60% possession in all of our games. Whether we do anything with it, however, has been where the issue has lied – as well as constantly being hit on the counter with silly goals.
But with Fraser, Keogh, and Jerome all well rested ahead of Saturday, I imagine we’ll be far more solid, creative, and clinical than normal - it will certainly be a great game!
MC: Sunderland won both league fixtures against MK Dons last season, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
MA: I can see this being a well contested draw, possibly a 1-1. We have a bit of a thing about ex-players, so don’t be surprised at all if Grigg pops up completely out of the blue – he hit three for Wigan against us back in 2018. I’ll go for Jerome finding the net for us!