Sunderland face Lincoln City today, as they seek to end of their run of five games without a win in League One.
Michael Appleton’s side sit second in the table, having won their last three matches, whilst Lee Johnson’s team sit ninth in the table, three points from the playoff positions.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Lincoln fan Gary Hutchinson of The Stacey West blog, to discuss the factors behind Appleton’s sides’ form, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Danny Cowley was snubbed for the Sunderland job in favour of Lee Johnson, do you think Sunderland have missed a trick by not appointing the former Lincoln boss?
GH: 100%. I can see why he was not given the job – he has only managed ‘small’ clubs thus far and the Sunderland job may have seemed too big for him for some. It’s a fallacy though, nobody deserves a stab at a sleeping giant more than Danny.
When he came to us in the National league he had to scale up his method drastically, and he did quite well I think you’ll agree. I do think his style of football might have had some fans on his back early though, which is a shame. My gut feeling is Lambert leaves Ipswich soon and Danny and Nicky are given a chance at Portman Road.
MC: The man who replaced Cowley at Lincoln, Michael Appleton, appears to be doing a fantastic job, with Lincoln currently sat second in League One – what are the key factors behind his success?
GH: Michael had to change the ethos of the club. Over Danny’s reign we did spend well – in the National league we had one of the top five or six budgets and won the title. The year we won League Two we were amongst the top five budgets or so – that couldn’t continue in the third-tier.
Michael has actually had 40% less to spend this season compared to last, which is remarkable. Out went big earners (not bad players though) and in came hungry young players, eager to develop and improve.
Our squad is small, but much of the success lays in the versatility. If you were to present me with out players in a list by their squad numbers, I could work out four or five formations we might play that would be equally as effective as each other. He’s spent wisely, he coaches well and drills patterns into the players which work.
MC: Are fans starting to believe that this Lincoln squad is capable of promotion to the Championship?
GH: Yes, which is worrying. When fans start to believe in something, many then begin to expect it. Take the game against you – would anyone have thought ‘we’ll beat Sunderland’ back in July? Absolutely not, yet here we are on the cusp of our game feeling we can win.
When you feel you can win, anything else feels like a defeat. If fans begin to believe, then it is easy to lose perspective. On budget, size of club, experience of playing squad and general team size, should we be in the top two? No, we shouldn’t really be in the top ten. Yet, here we are and the expectation that comes with it does concern me. Still, better to be worried about the expectation of success than the fear of failure.
MC: Midfielder Jorge Grant has already scored double figures this season, how imperative is he to the success of this Lincoln side?
GH: Very much so, but don’t lose sight of the fact he takes penalties and a lot of his goals have come from the spot. What I would say about Jorge is he has developed a lot under Michael. We signed him as a tricky wide man, capable of flicks and skills but with a warning from other clubs about substance. ‘The boy doesn’t like a tackle’, ‘he’s a fair weather player’ was the noises coming out of Luton and Mansfield.
He struggled at first under Michael, but he has stepped up to the plate this season. Playing as a six, nine, eleven, it doesn’t matter, he is effective anywhere. He has pace, skill, vision and he can mix it up when needed. He’s going to the Championship, whether with us or without us.
MC: Lincoln signed a variety of players on loan from Premier League in the summer window, which players have stood out so far this season who Sunderland need to be aware of?
GH: Alex Palmer stands right out, he’s our keeper and he has ten clean sheets in all competitions. That is, of course, down to the defence in front of him as well, but the boy is still really special. I liken him a bit to Dean Henderson from his Shrewsbury spell – you just know that he will be a first team player at a top Championship club in the future. He’s big, he commands his area with authority and there are no frills. If a save doesn’t necessitate a dive or acrobatics, then he won’t bother. I like that in a keeper.
I’d also shout out TJ Eyoma. He came on loan last season and didn’t get a game, it seemed a bit of a flop deal at the time. However, he liked us and we liked him, despite not getting game time, so he came back in the summer and he’s been huge for us. He’s got raw pace and power, but he’s flexible too. He can play right back or central defence and he’s got England youth honours too. I think he captained Spurs’ Under 23 side and he’s another with a big future.
MC: Former Sunderland midfielder Liam Bridcutt is now captain of Lincoln – how has he performed since joining from Nottingham Forest in the summer?
GH: It’s been patchy for the captain because he has struggled with injury. He started the season injured, came in for a bit and picked up a knock then got two games back before being ruled out again. It isn’t just what he offers on the field though, it is what he does off the pitch.
We have a lad on loan, Robbie Gotts, who was put in a club house with another lad. The other lad went out on loan, leaving Gotts in the house on his own – the first time he’d been away from home in his life. Bridcutt, as captain, goes and stays two nights a week so Gotts isn’t alone. He’s at under 18 fixtures when we play, even when he’s injured he travels to matches and I’m told by the manager when he walks into the gym, everyone ups their game that little bit. That’s vital, he’s a leader off the field, I just want to see more of him on it.
MC: Lincoln beat Shrewsbury 4-1 on Tuesday in the EFL Trophy, but only had five substitutes on the bench – is there an injury crisis within the squad currently?
GH: Yes and no. We don’t have a big squad, so I guess even a few knocks constitutes an injury. We have been unlucky with strikers – Callum Morton came in on loan and got ruled out for five or six months immediately. We replaced him with Jamie Soule and he played twice before going back to West Brom.
In terms of out-and-out strikers we have one in Tom Hopper, with Anthony Scully the obvious back up. In midweek, a couple of our key lads were carrying knocks. If it had been a league game, I would have imagined a couple would have played. We are threadbare in terms of numbers, but because of the player’s versatility, we have lots of options tactically.
MC: Who are the eleven Lincoln players you are predicting Appleton to select against Sunderland and what style of play can Johnson’s men expect to face?
GH: Honestly, it isn’t easy. It does depend on which players look likely to come back in and which are ruled out. It’ll be Palmer in goal, I would imagine TJ Eyoma and Tayo Edun full backs, with Lewis Montsma and Joe Walsh in the middle, a midfield trio of James Jones, Jorge Grant and Conor McGrandles (who would drop out for Bridcutt is he is fit) and a front three of Harry Anderson, Brennan Johnson and Tom Hopper.
There are variables there, Anthony Scully is right on the cusp of it too. It will be a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 depending on how specific you drive into the setup. Lots of playing out from the back (but better than when we lost at yours in Jan), and a fast counter when the chance arises. This side is all about pace and hitting teams quickly.
MC: Sunderland lost 2-0 in their last trip to Sincil Bank, a result which ended Jack Ross’ tenure as manager, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
GH: I’ve been asked across a couple of different platforms and I think I change it every time depending on my mood. I’ve said 1-1 to a fair few people recently, but we haven’t drawn at home this season. Mind you, you haven’t lost away, but runs are there to be broken. I can imagine a low scoring game, and I’ll stay consistent with 1-1.