Sunderland travel to Doncaster on Saturday, seeking to revive their season following a 2-1 home defeat to MK Dons last week, which saw Phil Parkinson’s side slip out of the playoff positions.
Darren Moore’s side sit 11th in the League One table, but do have games in hand, and they already beaten promotion challengers Ipswich, Portsmouth and Lincoln City so far this season.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Sunderland fan Paul Goodwin, who was a season ticket hold for over 20 years, but now covers Doncaster for the Doncaster Free Press. We discussed how Donny have progressed under Moore, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the opposition during the match.
MC: Darren Moore has been in charge of Doncaster for a year and a half now, how would you judge his progress and are Donny fans content with being outside the playoffs?
PG: Rovers are very fortunate to have a man of Moore’s standing and integrity in charge.
He’s doing an excellent job with the resources he has available and it does make you wonder how long it will be before a Championship club comes calling for his services.
Moore implemented his style of play very quickly and has used the loan market to good effect.
This season there was a nice defensive foundation in place and he’s concentrated on adding more energy and pace higher up the pitch.
When this team clicks they are a handful for anyone at this level.
Rovers were ninth when last season was curtailed and they’re currently sat 11th in the table - slightly below par.
Supporters certainly expect the club to be pushing for the play-offs but, if they fall just short this season, most are realistic and sensible enough to consider the impact Covid has had on the playing budget.
The top six is definitely attainable but Rovers don’t have a big squad and over a congested 46-game season that might just catch up with them.
MC: After a brilliant start to the season, Doncaster endured an inconsistent October, beating Portsmouth, Ipswich and Lincoln but losing to Wigan, Crewe and Plymouth - would you say the team is more effective against the better sides in the division?
PG: It looks like Rovers have had more joy against teams who come out and play.
They’ve tended to struggle more against opposition sides who have focused on trying to stop them - either by pressing really high or sitting deep.
This Rovers team will hurt you if they’re given time and space or if you don’t match their impressive work ethic.
They’re also capable of smothering teams with their press. Ipswich just couldn’t handle it, for instance, and lost 4-1 at the Keepmoat.
Like Sunderland, though, Rovers have had issues breaking down teams who get bodies behind the ball and camp on the edge of the area.
MC: Most of Doncaster’s recruitment were loan signings from Premier League clubs this summer, which new signings have caught your eye the most so far?
PG: Josh Sims is the stand-out. The Southampton winger looks too good for this level. He’s quick, skilful and clever and has hit the ground running in terms of goals and assists.
Matt Smith, on loan from Manchester City, is a busy midfielder who gets through plenty of work and is good on the ball. He complements Ben Whiteman very nicely.
Striker Tyreece John-Jules also showed some early promise but he’s still out injured.
The jury is out on goalkeeper Josef Bursik, on loan from Stoke.
MC: When we spoke during lockdown about Sunderland targeting new centre-backs, a player you recommended was Doncaster’s Tom Anderson, what makes him so effective at this level?
PG: Tom Anderson’s brilliantly old school and no nonsense - he’s a defender who is enjoyable to watch and a firm fans’ favourite down here.
He’s willing to put his body on the line, put his head in where it hurts and he heads things away for fun.
But there’s also more to him than that.
He might not be the quickest but his ability to read the game has got better and better and he’s also improved with the ball at his feet, which Moore’s playing out from the back demands.
MC: In the past two seasons Donny have lost top scorers John Marquis to Portsmouth and Kieran Sadlier to Rotherham - are the team lacking someone who can score double figures this season?
PG: Possibly. But so far this season goals have been coming from all over the pitch.
I’d back Fejiri Okenabirhie or Tyreece John-Jules to at least reach double figures but I’m not sure either of them are 20-goal a season strikers.
However, Rovers have been creating a hatful of chances and 12 different players have found the net so far this term.
MC: Sunderland decided to sell Reece James in favour of awarding academy graduate Denver Hume more first-team opportunities - how has James performed since joining Doncaster?
PG: He’s been a very good signing. Mr Reliable really. And this season he’s shown some valuable versatility - given the small-sized squad - by also playing left midfield and even centre midfield.
There’s a decent chance he’ll play in centre mid on Saturday. It’s a role he’s really grown into. He’s comfortable on the ball and has good mobility.
MC: Doncaster midfielder James Coppinger is still playing regular football aged 39, how does he stay so fit and consistent?
PG: Ha, that’s the million dollar question! Coppinger insists it is purely down to his positive mindset and the fact he still enjoys playing.
He’s really big on the mental side of the game and owns a company, ProMindset, which aims to improve young footballers by developing the way that they think.
When he was a younger player he strayed into drinking and gambling but not long after he joined Doncaster in 2004 he began speaking to a mind/performance coach who helped mould him into the model professional he has been ever since.
Copps turns 40 in January and has said he will hang up his boots at the end of this season. He’ll be irreplaceable at Doncaster Rovers.
MC: Who are the eleven Doncaster players you believe Moore will select against Sunderland, and what style of play can Parkinson’s men expect to face?
PG: Bursik; Halliday, Wright, Anderson, John; Whiteman; Taylor, Smith, James, Sims; Okenabirhie.
It’ll be either 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1.
Rovers play out from the back, look to play through the thirds, work hard to close down the opposition and have the ability to break on teams quickly.
MC: Phil Parkinson’s side were unbeaten against Doncaster last season, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
PG: Honestly, I’m nervous from a Sunderland-supporting perspective!
If Rovers bring their A-game I do genuinely fear the worst here.
Although, like you say, Sunderland do have a good record against Doncaster and have won five of the six league meetings between these sides.
I think it’ll be another close game between these teams.
On paper it looks like an intriguing contest between a young and vibrant Rovers team against a more experienced, workmanlike Sunderland.
I’ll sit firmly on the fence and say 1-1!