Sunderland face Burton Albion tonight at the Stadium of Light in their first match since sacking Phil Parkinson. Thirty-four-year-old first-team coach Andrew Taylor will take charge of the side, after assistant manager Steve Parkin also followed Parkinson out of the door.
The Black Cats sit eighth in the League One table, seven points behind league leaders Hull, while their opponents sit in the relegation places, three points from safety. Sunderland have never beaten Burton Albion at the Stadium of Light.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Burton fan and VAVEL writer Dan Johnson. We discussed how his team have faired under new manager Jake Buxton, as well as if he believes they can avoid relegation this season.
MC: First and foremost, from a neutral perspective were you surprised to see Phil Parkinson sacked as manager of Sunderland on Sunday?
DJ: Ultimately, football is a results business. For a club, the size of Sunderland, eighth position in League One is not good enough – even at such an early stage of the season.
However, again, the club’s owners (despite the current takeover negotiations) have put another manager to the sword. Poor Parkinson managed only just over a year, and frankly it is sad to see.
However, no wins in five and being seven points off the top is not acceptable for such a demanding fanbase like Sunderland’s. The club are massive, not just in the city, but in England.
Success for the club is vital, due to the financial implications and overheads they have. Without promotion this season, they could see themselves slip into a never-ending drought down in England’s lower elite reaches.
MC: Nigel Clough resigned as manager of Burton in the summer due to the financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Were you sad to see his time with the club conclude in that way?
DJ: When I first saw that Clough had left the club, I had mixed emotions. He is a legend at the end of the day, he has brought us success down in non-league and returned to push us into the Championship – a feat unmatched by any other club our size.
The way he left summed up his feelings towards the club – he cared more about the club than his own personal gain, and that is something we can never underestimate. It was a sad moment in the club’s recent history, but possibly he had reached his peak with the team at the time.
His final season with the club was less than great, with a poor league finish given the squad available at the time – and his departure was likely anyway; not a sacking but him stepping down after being on record several times saying he would like a new challenge elsewhere.
MC: 35-year-old Jake Buxton was appointed as manager to replace Clough. What did Burton fans think of this decision and is he under pressure?
DJ: The club are fabled for how many managers they have given a chance to begin their managerial careers here in England, with Clough, Rowett, and Hasselbaink, to name just a few.
Ben Robinson MBE (chairman) is Mr Burton Albion. Ben is known for his loyalty and trust in the managers who he appoints. Never has a manager, under his ownership, been given the boot in dramatic circumstances and all are given time to prove themselves – this has led to incredible scenes, like our unlikely promotion and two-season journey in the Championship, something all Burton Albion fans never expected to see.
Do I think Jake is under pressure? Yes. However, I do not think that is coming from the club’s side, but rather a demanding fan base who have tasted incredible success in the last few years and might need to reflect and temper their expectations. We are after all, an incredibly well-run club, with limited resources.
MC: Burton currently sit 22nd in the League One table and have conceded the most goals. Are fans confident the club can avoid relegation?
DJ: Frankly, we have been insanely unlucky so far this season. On several occasions we have lost games by silly mistakes, rather than poor performances. The style of play, and the effort put in by the players is there – turning those efforts into points has been the issue so far.
I personally think we will stay up, and Buxton will keep his job – however, I think it is going to be a long and arduous season.
MC: Who are the three most dangerous Burton players Sunderland will have to look out for during the match?
DJ: This is a difficult question to answer, as the squad this year is very much a team, rather than ‘stand-out’ players. However, Lucas Akins, Niall Ennis and Stephen Quinn are three players who come to mind. Lucas is and always will be a threat. He sums up the club in so many ways, his grit, determination, and loyalty are unmatched by many players. His versatility and quick decision making are two of his best abilities – and his eye for goal has been vital to our success.
On-loan forward Niall Ennis is a threat in many ways. His pace is lighting, his agility is exceptional, and his movement is hard to deal with. Niall was brought into the club because of our lack of pace going forward, and he has added a new layer of threat from an attacking perspective.
Stephen Quinn is an absolute professional. His vision and calmness are so reassuring for the defence. Sitting just in front of the back four or five, he brings solidity to the midfield, but in a quiet and backseat way. He offers a range of passes, which help link the back to the front, allowing us to hit teams on the counter effectively. I imagine that will be vital on Tuesday.
MC: The Brewers lost attacking midfielder Scott Fraser to MK Dons in the summer, and forward Liam Boyce to Hearts last season, too. How much of a loss have they been?
DJ: Both Liam and Scott were crucial to how the team were set up in the last few seasons. Both have immense quality, and their loss is deep. Liam Boyce’s career at Burton started badly, with a terrible injury, but once fit again showed his fire power – including a goal to send a certain club down to League One… sorry Mackems. Last season he was in the final year of his deal and the club could not afford to let him leave in the summer for free, so he had to go in January, which was a blow.
Scott Fraser is arguably the most talented player we have had in over a decade (in terms of pure talent). He has it all, an eye for goal and for a killer pass. His stats proved it, with nine goals and 14 assists in his final season for the club – numbers even the best players would be proud of. We have replaced Scott with Joe Powell from West Ham, and Joe has slowly began showing his talents too, and hopefully will soon notch similar numbers to the Scotsman now at MK Dons.
MC: Former Burton defender Tom Flanagan has been a consistent starter with Sunderland this season, after signing a new two-year deal in the summer despite Championship interest. Did you expect him to do well at Sunderland?
DJ: No. In simple terms his attitude while at Burton was terrible at times. His eyes were always on moving onto bigger things, and that was fine – but I felt the club were pushovers and should have been tougher with him.
He has the talent, so it’s no surprise that Championship clubs are interested, but I am surprised he has managed to nail down a spot. I can only assume he has grown as a person and his attitude has improved, which is good because I want only to see current and ex-Brewers to do well in their careers.
MC: Who are the 11 Burton players you expect Buxton to select and what style of play can Sunderland fans expect?
DJ: In recent weeks, with Covid-19 cases and injuries, the first eleven has not been nailed down, however, I would expect the squad to be along these lines: O’Hara, Brayford, Hughes, Bostwick, Daniel, Quinn, Gilligan, Edwards, Powell, Vernam, Akins. No changes from our emphatic 4-2 victory over Charlton Athletic last time out.
In terms of style of play, Buxton has settled on a very specific approach. Possession based, quick passes and hard pressing – so a tiki-taka/gegenpress amalgamation. This has provided some nice football at times, but with an unsettled team it has been hard to settle into a groove – hopefully, a win over manager-less Sunderland can add to the success over Charlton.
MC: Burton are yet to win away from home in League One this season. Do you think Buxton’s men will produce a shock win at the Stadium of Light?
DJ: Honestly, I am not sure how the fixture will go. A manager sacking can go one of two ways. Either the players will be buoyed by the sacking and put in a performance that Burton will be unable to cope with, or the Sunderland players could be lost at sea. If that’s the case, Buxton’s men could put the Black Cats to the sword and earn their first victory away from home in the league this season.