After beating Rochdale 3-0 on Tuesday night, Sunderland travel to the Kassam Stadium where they will face Karl Robinson’s Oxford United on Saturday. The lads moved up to 5th in the League One table and secured yet another clean sheet under Phil Parkinson.
On the other hand, the Yellows are on a poor run of form are on a poor run of form having just won one of their last seven league games, but they did take Sunderland’s local rivals Newcastle to extra-time in the FA Cup recently.
The two sides have drawn in their last five meetings, including earlier this season in the Carabao Cup where the match finished 1-1, before Will Grigg’s missed penalty sent Oxford into the next round.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Oxford fan and BT analyst George Dugdale - we discussed how the season has progressed since we last met, as well as if he still believes his team can achieve promotion to the Championship.
MC: Oxford lost two of their best players, Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste, to Brentford in January for just £3m - how big of a blow was it to lose two integral players midway through the season, and why were the fees so nominal?
GD: It was a big blow. We knew they would move on eventually, but for them both to move on ‘Deadline Day’ without replacement was tough to take. Tariqe had a £750k release clause, which is probably the only reason he was willing to play League One football in the first place. He started the season brilliantly but I think a combination of fatigue and teams becoming wise enough to double up on him meant that he actually left us during his worst run of form for the club.
Shandon’s fee will almost certainly take the combined total far beyond the reported £3m. I suspect those at boardroom level will be hoping Brentford find their way into the Premier League this season, before selling Shandon on to a top club for a huge fee. Only then will we know what the actual value is. A move was actually in place a year ago, but an injury suffered against (ironically) Brentford delayed the move for a year. That year has actually given us a far bigger fee than was agreed last season and could go much higher if he performs as I expect him to. We picked Shandon up when he was released by Reading at 16 and having seen him work since then, the only thing that was ever going to stop this rise was injuries.
I’m delighted for him on a personal level because he needs to fulfil his potential and end up in the Premier League. Being selfish, I just wish we could have kept him until the summer because I think he’s on the brink of being consistently special. Sadly, that will now happen on Brentford’s watch.
It is worth saying that our best run of the season came without Shandon playing and without Fosu contributing to the level he did in the opening weeks of the season, so it’s not as if all is lost. We just have to rediscover that form.
MC: Having said that, Oxford did re-sign Marcus Browne on loan from Middlesbrough, as well as Liam Kelly (Feyenoord) and Nathan Holland (West Ham) on loan - they all seem to have hit the ground running. Are you impressed with how well the club did to replace their departures?
GD: The strangeness of this window is that if Tariqe and Shandon had left on January 1st and the signings had come in at the back end of the window, rather than vise-versa, we would probably have been more positive. Oxford United will always have to sell. Recruit, improve, trade. That’s the way this club has worked so successfully for a number of years now.
The thing that hurt people is that without signings coming in to replace them on the final day of the window, it now has to be the squad we had minus two players to keep up the promotion charge. We really enjoyed Marcus Browne’s first spell at the club and I think that will prove to be a real coup for us. Nathan Holland is probably the pick of the bunch at PL2 level at the moment and he’s slowly adjusting to men’s football. The strike against Newcastle showed the quality that he has. It’s now a question of showing it consistently.
Liam Kelly hadn’t played much football at all in Holland so has taken a while to get fit. Unfortunately, both Browne (ankle) and Kelly (hamstring) are doubts for the weekend. With Alex Gorrin, who has been absolutely crucial to our best performances this season, suspended as well, it’s looking like a bit of a challenge for us.
MC: Oxford manager Karl Robinson openly stated he wanted to sign Will Grigg from Sunderland in January, however nothing materialised - were you disappointed this transfer did not happen or were you thankful the club missed out given his dreadful form?
GD: I’d have liked to bring him in if the finances had worked in our favour. This is football. Someone Sunderland can’t get a tune out of might absolutely fly at Oxford United, as is entirely possible the other way around. Take a look at Eoin Doyle at Bradford and Swindon - some clubs just work for a player.
Much like Tariqe Fosu before him, some of Grigg’s best football came under Karl Robinson. The failure to add a striker means there will be more opportunities for the incredibly raw Dan Agyei to learn his trade, so I’ll take the positive there.
MC: After spending a large proportion of the season within the play-off positions, Oxford now find themselves chasing the pack - what are the main reasons behind the team’s decline in form?
GD: It sounds like an easy excuse, but injuries have certainly played a part. We also lost Chris Cadden to his parent club in America, which has definitely changed the way we attack from full-back. I think we all knew he would be a loss but it may be even greater than we realised. That’s no disrespect to Sam Long who is doing fairly well at right-back, but as when we had George Baldock charging down the right flank, we’ve lost an attacking outlet as well as a defender.
Cameron Brannagan and James Henry are now fit again which will hopefully make a difference. We looked much better in the draw at Burton in midweek, although it would help if we stopped making mad mistakes on the ball in our own final third. There was always going to be a blip in the season and we are still very much in the play-off picture. The cup runs have given us an incredibly intense February calendar, so it’s very much time to make a move.
MC: Karl Robinson was recently linked with joining Spanish second division club Malaga, how satisfied are you with the job he is doing at Oxford and how far do you think he can go in football management?
GD: Very satisfied. I think he’s had some massive challenges to deal with in terms of financial restraints and teething problems with the new training ground, but we’ve come out the other side of that looking a better club. His style of football is one that I want to watch and the players love working with him. He’s a pain in the arse for officials and opposition fans, but while he’s our pain, I couldn’t care less.
On the second aspect, it’s an interesting question. We had Chris Wilder here and there are similarities. They are both brutally honest and won’t suffer fools. Neither are shy of giving their opinions to the media and they both have incredibly high expectations of their players. He has said that he would like to work abroad at some stage, but I think he’s a promotion with Oxford United away from putting his name back into the frame for some very good jobs in this country.
I would be disappointed if we didn’t get into the play-offs in either this or next season, with the latter being slightly more realistic. If he could get us promoted, I think his options will change significantly.
MC: Oxford beat Hayes & Yeading, Walsall and Hartlepool before taking Newcastle all way to extra-time in their FA Cup replay - did you enjoy the club’s journey in the FA Cup or did you see it as a distraction to your promotion ambitions?
GD: You can’t ever complain about the nights we’ve had this season. Beating West Ham and pushing Manchester City all the way in the League Cup was fun and if you’re not enjoying two games against Newcastle, you’re not doing football properly. Money was made, beers were consumed - everybody wins.
If you could guarantee me that going out in the first round of both competitions would mean promotion, I’d swap. In a world where nobody can guarantee anything, just enjoy the good days out that your football team give you and worry about the rest at a later date. As I say, our February is mad and it just so happens that we play lots of the good teams in the division, but I’m not really in the business of using fixture congestion as an excuse.
If you’re losing every week it feels like a drain, but if you get onto a roll it can be the best thing. I’m a little fearful of where it’s heading but we may look back on February more positively once we get to the end of it.
MC: The League One promotion race is wide open at the moment with clubs such as: Rotherham, Peterborough, Portsmouth and Sunderland all on impressive runs - who do you think will be promoted and do Oxford still have a chance?
GD: Rotherham and Peterborough are the two most complete teams I have seen face us recently, so I’d go for them in the automatic positions. Rotherham knew exactly what they were about and did a job on us, whereas Peterborough have the best attacking unit in this division by quite a distance.
Coventry are also firmly in the mix. It’s difficult for me to say because the Sunderland and Portsmouth sides we faced in the League weren’t very good in comparison to their current versions of themselves. I thought Sunderland were decent in the second half of the League Cup tie and Parkinson appears to have built on that.
I’d like to think that we are the side who will time the run perfectly, hit the play-off spots on the final weekend of the season and continue from there, but all of the sides you would have expected to challenge are now there. It’s going to be good fun. If we can rediscover our best form, I don’t think there are many better sides than us out there. When we are disjointed, there certainly are.
MC: Former Sunderland academy product Alex Gorrin signed for Oxford at the start of this season - how has he performed this season for the club?
GD: I love him to an extent that would probably be slightly unnerving for him if he knew about it. He’s absolutely brilliant and if there is a better holding midfielder in League One, he’s one hell of a player.
Blackburn were linked with him in January and he’s another one who I think we will make a big profit on at some stage. He’s slightly strange in as much as he plays much better when he’s a single defensive midfielder, rather than when he has someone alongside him. Having help should make his life easier, but he’s happier when he’s doing the graft and feeding the two midfielders slightly ahead of him.
He’s superb technically, fights like he grew up in the English lower-leagues and when he’s good, we’re great. If we can get a midfield trio Gorrin, Brannagan and Henry/Woodburn fit and firing again, with Taylor, Browne and Henry/Holland in front of them, that’s a very strong unit. Players develop at different rates and we are seeing the benefits of the talent that Sunderland once saw in him.
I’ll let you decide which part of the “he drinks Estrella, he eats paella, he goes in two-footed” chant means he is missing the next two games through suspension. He will be a big miss and with Kelly out, I’m not sure who we put in that position.
MC: Who are the eleven Oxford players you expect Karl Robinson to select against Sunderland and what style of play can Phil Parkinson expect to face?
GD: As I say, this isn’t easy! It’s going to be a bit of a patched up side. Jamie Mackie missed Tuesday night after a family bereavement and we don’t know whether he will be available. Football isn’t important when that happens so I’d be starting Matty Taylor up top regardless. Jamie Hanson and Liam Kelly are out, so those are two of the candidates to replace Alex Gorrin out of the picture. I suspect that will see us put a ball-playing midfielder into the more traditional destroyer role and take it from there. We have been 4-3-3 for most of the season so I’ll stick with that, although there is a 4-2-3-1 shout considering the lack of options in the middle. Henry and Sykes can both play in midfield or wide right, so that gives us some flexibility. After conceding 6 goals in 2 games, Elliott Moore should be banging on the manager’s door for a place at the back. If that happens, I’d expect Mousinho to drop out with Henry captaining the side.
A wild guess at: Eastwood; Long, Dickie, Mousinho (C), Ruffels, Brannagan, Henry, Sykes, Browne (if fit), Taylor, Holland.
The style will be the same as always. We will look to get the ball down and play. Holland, Henry, Brannagan, Brown and Taylor all want the ball on the floor. When they’re beating men, we are at our best. Teams have become aware of the benefits of pressing us as the season has worn on, so we’ll have to be sharper on the ball than we have been recently.
It’s worth factoring in that this game is due to be played in a three-sided ground during a hurricane, so the style may not be what we expect. The Ipswich game was played in similar conditions and was a farce. The pitch took a battering that night so I’m not sure how it’ll hold up this weekend if the weather is as bad as predicted.
MC: A draw seems like the most probable result given Sunderland’s failure to beat Oxford in League One so far - what is your honest prediction of the final score?
GD: I think it’s a big ask considering all of the absentees and Gorrin’s suspension comes at a really bad time. That said, the eleven names I listed there are good footballers. The mood isn’t one of wild optimism at the moment, but the hope is that the last minute equaliser at Burton is a springboard.
I don’t think you could have picked a much better time to play us, but hopefully the us against the world mentality will kick in for what is a big game. That said, I wouldn’t be devastated if this storm gave us a bit longer to get players back!
Oxford 1-2 Sunderland.