After beating Bristol Rovers 3-0 on Saturday, Sunderland face promotion rivals Fleetwood Town at the Stadium of Light tonight. Phil Parkinson’s men moved up to fourth in the League One table, just three points behind league leaders Rotherham.
On the other hand, the visitors moved into the play-off positions after beating Portsmouth 1-0 at home. Joey Barton’s team have won their last five League One matches and are now serious contenders for the promotion positions.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Fleetwood fan and YouTuber Knappers - we discussed their excellent run of form and if he believes their Championship dreams can become a reality.
MC: Sunderland have failed to beat Fleetwood under Joey Barton in three attempts so far - why do you think the ex-Newcastle possesses such a credible managerial record against us?
K: I think Barton believes that we have nothing to fear against Sunderland. Fleetwood approach the game with the mindset that we can really get at you and put you under pressure. As a fan, seeing how effective Barton can motivate his players is such a pleasing aspect.
MC: Since Barton is performing so effectively as manager of Fleetwood, are you concerned at all that a bigger club perhaps in the Championship could come in for him at some point?
K: Should that happen I would be happy for Barton as he deserves it. Under his tenure we play attractive football on the front foot and always look like scoring goals. He is not scared to make a big call that might upset someone. Although he has had to learn and improve being his first job in management, in the end he always seems to make the correct
MC: Fleetwood are currently on a fantastic run of form in League One winning their last five games, with yourselves only being six points away from 1st place, do you believe that promotion to the Championship is a realistic prospect?
K: Why not? There is always a surprise package who goes on a ridiculous run towards the back end of the season and achieves promotion. Having said that, there are some excellent teams around us such as Sunderland, Portsmouth, Rotherham and Coventry. I believe there are about eight-nine teams who could achieve a top six finish, if we continue our good form it is possible that we can achieve promotion.
MC: Whilst Fleetwood have lost just one home in the league this season, away from home your form has been largely inconsistent - what do you think are the main reasons behind this?
K: In truth I am not 100% sure. I do not believe we play at the same intensity as we do at Highbury, however lately our away form has improved significantly. From our last five away games we have taken ten points, including a victory away at Wycombe who have one of the best home records in League One.
MC: Ched Evans has scored eight league goals this season, but he will miss tonight’s game through suspension - how influential will his absence be on the Fleetwood team?
K: I believe Evans is a quality striker at this level, but since he has been missing we have won both games. He is strong, holds the ball up well and links very effectively with our other forward Paddy Madden. Madden is the second top goal scorer in League One with 15 goals, he is more than capable of performing without Evans.
MC: Fleetwood beat Sunderland to the signing of Leeds right-back Lewie Coyle during the January transfer window - how happy were you to see his loan move be made permanent?
K: Coyle has improved massively across his two and a half seasons on loan at Fleetwood and has developed into a very good right-back. I was thrilled to see the club beat Sunderland to signing him permanently, I believe he has the potential to improve even further.
MC: In addition to Coyle, Fleetwood signed experienced midfielder Glenn Whelan, as well as Barrie McKay (Swansea) and Callum Connolly (Everton) on loan - would you say they have added strength and depth to your squad?
K: 100%! Fleetwood fans were all in agreement that the squad needed freshening up to add increased competition. Whelen has been superb since joining adding experience, Connolly can play practically anywhere and will put a shift in. McKay has added pace, his dribbling ability is fantastic, plus we signed young defender Lewis Gibson from Everton on loan who has won all five of his Fleetwood matches.
MC: Who are the eleven Fleetwood players you predict Joey Barton will select against Sunderland?
K: 4-3-3: Alex Cairns (GK), Lewie Coyle (RB), Harry Souttar (CB), Lewis Gibson (CB), Danny Andrew (LB), Callum Connolly (CM), Glenn Whelen (CM), Paul Coutts (CM), Wes Burns (RW), Paddy Madden (ST), Barrie McKay (LW).
Although we could switch to a 3-4-3 which would see Connolly drop back to centre-back.
MC: Sunderland have never beaten Fleetwood Town in a competitive league fixture, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
K: It is going to be a tough match for Fleetwood. The atmosphere at the Stadium of Light is always going to have an effect on the Sunderland players. I would take a point from this match so I will predict a 1-1 draw.