Sunderland face AFC Wimbledon at the Stadium of Light tonight in their third League One fixture under the management of Lee Johnson.
The Black Cats achieved their best away win since 2017 at the weekend, beating Lincoln 4-0, courtesy of goals from Charlie Wyke (two), Grant Leadbitter and Jack Diamond.
On the other hand, Glyn Hodges’ side lost 5-2 to Charlton, but the Dons currently sit comfortably in 14th, a credible improvement so far on their previous two league campaigns.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Wimbledon fan Sam Long of Squawka, to discuss how the Dons have fared so far this season, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Wimbledon have narrowly avoided relegation in the past two seasons, but the Dons currently sit 14th in the League One table. What has led to this season’s improvement?
SL: I’ve been relatively pleased with our start given that – as usual – we were tipped by every man and his dog to be relegated. But it’s getting very tight down there and realistically a run of two or three games without a win and we’ll be sucked right back into the mire by the time the festive period comes.
We’re carrying much more of a threat up front and we now look like scoring every time we take to the field, rather than often struggling to see where the goals could come from. Our away form has also taken a positive turn, given that we’ve already collected 12 points (three wins, three draws and three defeats) on our travels this term. That is more than we managed in the entirety of last season (11 points from 17 games) before the campaign was curtailed.
MC: It is Wimbledon manager Glyn Hodges’ first full season managing in professional football. How is he viewed by supporters and what is he known for?
SL: Glyn ended up taking over in strange circumstances, having served as Wally Downes’ assistant before stepping into a caretaker role and ultimately securing the gig on on a full-time basis.
Anyone who has a connection with Wimbledon FC automatically endears themselves to the fans and nobody can have too many grumbles about the job Glyn has done to date. It was absolutely crucial for the club to move into the new stadium as a League One club and we achieved that (albeit by the skin of our teeth).
His style of play is far from revolutionary but I’m happy to see us becoming a team that relishes being difficult to beat rather than dismissed as a soft touch by opponents.
MC: Striker Joe Pigott has already broken into double figures this season. Do you think Wimbledon may struggle to keep hold of him in the January transfer window?
SL: Looking back, it’s remarkable that ‘The Pig’ ever had to drop into non-league before we signed him from Maidstone United in January 2018.
We usually don’t have the lion’s share of possession and the fact that Pigott has had the most shots (60) and shots on target (23) in the league so far this season is testament to how high his confidence is at the moment.
Wimbledon are always at risk of losing our best players because we are simply unable to offer the long-term contracts that can help to keep bigger clubs at bay. There will undoubtedly be interest in Pigott, as there has been in every transfer window since he joined us, but continuing our solid start will hopefully put us in a decent position to keep hold of him.
MC: Aside from Pigott, who are the Wimbledon players Lee Johnson’s team will need to be wary of during the match?
SL: We were fortunate to get Steve Seddon on loan for a second time, given that he excelled at Portsmouth last term. In truth, I was expecting him to go back in at Birmingham and get regular game time or join a top League One club on a permanent basis. The 22-year-old is a left-back who likes to get forward, is comfortable on the ball and a tidy crosser. Don’t be surprised to see our play on the left flank going through him.
Ryan Longman has also proven to be a great addition. The 20-year-old had no Football League experience prior to this season so arrived with the usual question marks over his head in regards to making the step up to from under-23s football. But he’s immediately answered any doubts and has proven himself to be an absolute pest for defenders when paired up front with Pigott.
MC: Wimbledon have scored more league goals than any other bottom half side in League One, but also possess one of the worst defensive records. Is it fair to say your games are always open?
SL: Absolutely. It’s great to see us scoring regularly, but the defence is a growing concern. Of course, our goals conceded column would be looking far healthier if we hadn’t leaked nine in our last two games (5 vs Charlton and 4 vs Bristol Rovers).
The old cliche ‘you’re at your most vulnerable after you’ve scored’ has certainly rung true this season as we regularly conceded a few minutes after finding the net ourselves. Another worrying trend is that 19% of the goals we have conceded have come between 41-50 minutes, which makes for grim reading in terms of our ability to keep things tight either side of half-time.
MC: Former Sunderland target Ben Heneghan signed for Wimbledon earlier this season - how was he performed so far since joining the Dons?
SL: Heneghan has looked like a solid signing in his six appearances so far. He’s looked at home in a back three and a place in the side is now his to lose, having completed 90 minutes in four consecutive games.
He’s also proven himself to be a real threat from set pieces, with two goals to his name already.
MC: Wimbledon recently moved into their new 9000 capacity stadium – how excited are you to experience the atmosphere during a match once the stadium can be fully filled with home and away supporters?
SL: Experiencing it with any amount fans would be a start! Although we’re now playing home games at Plough Lane, the stadium is still in the process of being completed. Hosting test events at full capacity during COVID times in order to secure the necessary safety certificates is no easy feat. As a result, it looks like 2021 will be the earliest supporters finally get their first taste of the new ground.
It’s been a long wait, so I can deal with another few months.
MC: Who are the eleven Dons players you are expecting Hodges to select and what style of play can Sunderland expect to face?
SL: (3-5-2 ) Trueman; Nightingale, Heneghan, Csoka; McLoughlin, Woodyard, Hartigan, Reilly, Seddon, Longman, Piggott.
We’ll be looking to soak up pressure when out of possession rather than dictate tempo. If Sunderland opt to start with a front three, expect our wing-backs to double up in defence.
MC: Sunderland are unbeaten against Wimbledon in three League One fixtures so far. What is your honest prediction of the final score?
SL: We have shown a tendency to raise our game against play-off contenders (at times!) and I think we’ll make a good fist of it. But I’ll go for a 2-1 home win. Pigott with the goal for the Dons.