After beating Oxford 1-0 last week, Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light on Saturday where they will face Ben Garner’s Bristol Rovers.
Phil Parkinson’s men are now just three points from the top of League One, having kept seven clean sheets in their last eight league matches. The race for promotion to the Championship is wide open with six points separating the top eight teams in the league.
Since losing manager Graham Coughlan to Mansfield, the Pirates have won just once under their new manager Ben Garner in League One. The club have dropped all the way from 4th to 13th, failing to beat the likes of Bolton and Tranmere.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Bristol Rovers fan Tom from the GasCast podcast; we discussed how their new manager Ben Garner is performing, as well as if he believes the squad are capable of beating Sunderland.
MC: Striker Jonson Clarke-Harris has scored 11 League One goals this season. After struggling at other clubs at this level, he is playing the most consistent football of his career presently - why is he so electric for Bristol Rovers?
TM: The majority of his form was down to a weirdly strong bond with our previous manager Graham Coughlan. They would spar together and stuff like that, and Graham really knew how to get the best out of him. It helped him that he was the star of the show, too. He’s a player that needs an ego boost and Graham certainly did that for him.
It will be interesting to see how Ben Garner handles him. I can see him grabbing more goals as we’re creating more chances under Garner, but JCH is no longer all we have in terms of firepower with several forwards coming in during January, so I’m hoping to see the rest of the forward line chipping in more.
MC: Whilst the club was sat 4th in the League One table, manager Graham Coughlan left the club to join League Two side Mansfield for family reasons - how much of a blow was that to the fanbase, with the club performing so well?
TM: It has certainly derailed our season and there is a lot of anger towards Graham for that. He gave mixed messages when he left about wanting to move closer to home and not being able to progress the club, when it seemed he just wanted to be closer to home, which no one would begrudge him really.
I think he handled the whole thing terribly by blurting it out in the post match after winning at Ipswich away. It was shame as his record as manager was very good and he had saved us from relegation last season. I’m glad to see he’s not doing well at Mansfield, and long may that continue.
MC: To replace him, the club employed a highly inexperienced manager in Ben Garner. The Englishman possesses a highly credible CV as an assistant manager, but has never managed a club independently - were you surprised to see the club take such a gamble?
TM: Yes. I thought with us sitting in 4th the club would go with someone like a Holloway or a Tisdale, someone to come in with experience to see if we could maintain a playoff push. In the end I can see that Garner is the appointment for the philosophy the club is going after, to develop younger players for sell on value and try and make the club sustainable. We’ll see how that works out as it’s pretty much every club’s dream to do it!
MC: As a result of that appointment, the club has been on a dreadful run of form winning just once in League One. What has Garner changed to have caused the team to perform so badly?
TM: At first he didn’t change a lot, it was the same hoofball up to JCH and hoping he’ll do something magical. Once that wasn’t showing results, he’s been trying to get us to keep it on the deck a bit more and actually have some possession.
He wasn’t helped with the injuries he inherited either. We haven’t got a huge squad and we had easily three or four first team players out of contention at any one time - including JCH with a calf injury. That makes his goal tally this season even more impressive.
In the last three or four games it’s started to show fruit. We are creating plenty of chances, but not taking them. The win against Blackpool on Saturday was huge for us, and I hope that it gives us a bit of confidence ahead of our trip up to you.
MC: In the January transfer window you signed several players including: Jamal Blackman (Chelsea), Josh Ginnelly (Preston), Timmy Abraham (Fulham) and Jayden Mitchell-Lawson (Derby) all on loan - have any of those players impressed you so far?
TM: Several! Blackman has been an excellent replacement for Jakkola who himself had been one of our best performers. His command of his area is excellent and his distribution is quality, too. He isn’t as good a shot stopper as Jakkola, but I’ll let him off for that.
Jayden Mitchell-Lawson has been a bright spark in the front three since he’s come in. He scored against Wycombe and could have easily gotten a second. He works hard, is quick and has the ability to beat a man. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do for the rest of the season.
Ginnelly hasn’t been as impressive as JML, but is a class above at this level. He should do very well for us during the remainder of the season
MC: Although the club are on a poor run of form, you are set to improve upon last season’s 17th place finish. As a club overall, does mid-table safety in League One satisfy the fanbase or are there aspirations for the club to push on and attempt to fight for Championship promotion?
TM: Mid-table obscurity is what a lot of fans had predicted at the start of the season, and I think ultimately will be happy with after only just surviving last season. Getting up to the giddy heights has meant a lot of us got our hopes up about a playoff push, so the season will feel a bit of a let down after that, but I’ll be happy with mid table after the miserable run we’ve just been on.
Aspiration wise, Bristol Rovers fans want to see the club challenging for promotion from this division. This year does feel like the year to do it with some of the ‘bigger’ teams like Pompey and yourselves starting slow and the whole Bury and Bolton situation. We would get mullered in the Championship, but away days to Leeds, Forest, etc? Who would say no to that for a season?
MC: Sunderland possess the best defensive record in League One this season - how do you think Garner will approach trying to score goals at the Stadium of Light?
TM: We’ve been lining up in a 4-3-3 in the last four games, so I expect him to go for that. We have been creating lots of chances but not finishing them, so hopefully we have our shooting boots on Saturday.
What has been more of a problem is the other end. When we played 5-3-2 we were very solid defensively and gave away very few goals. With the back four we look a little more shaky back there so we desperately need goals to offset that!
MC: Who are the eleven Bristol Rovers players you predict Garner will select against Sunderland and why?
TM: I predict a 4-3-3 of:
GK - Blackman, LB - Leahey, CB - Craig, CB - Kilgour, RB - Little, CM - Clarke (c), CM - Ogogo, CM - Upson, LF - Mitchell-Lawson, CF - Clarke-Harris, RF - Rodman.
Garner has named an unchanged team in the last two games, so I fully expect him to name the same team.
The back four have looked shaky especially Leahey at LB which is a concern. Craig is the wise old head next to the up and coming 21-year-old Kilgour. He scored an absolute worldie against Blackpool, which is well worth looking up.
The midfield is made up of cloggers. They are there to defend and that is what they do. This is the main area of the pitch I feel Rovers can improve in the summer, but for now this is what we have.
The front three have looked sharp especially JML on the left. Expect to see him replaced by Ginnelly in the last 20 or so.
MC: Sunderland beat Bristol Rovers three times across last season - what is your honest prediction of the final score on Saturday?
TM: I was there for two of them (#bteamboycott) and have to say you weren’t convincing when we played you at the Stadium of Light. I fancy us to score first and give it a right good go. Head over heart says a 3-1 loss, but my night out in Newcastle will be improved no end by a 2-1 win for the Gas!