Sunderland face Bristol Rovers at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, in their opening match of the 2020/21 League One campaign. It will begin the club’s third attempt at achieving promotion back to the Championship.
Ben Garner’s Bristol Rovers placed the nail in Phil Parkinson’s promotion hopes last season with a 2-0 win before lockdown. A brace from Jonson Clarke-Harris sealed a 14th place for Rovers, who will be aiming to challenge for the play-offs this season.
RR: Bristol Rovers signed Jack Baldwin following his release from Sunderland this summer - how did fans react to that signing, and do you think he will be a starting player for your club?
MA: With cautious optimism. It’s no secret that Baldwin struggled with the pressure of playing under a huge fanbase at the Stadium of Light - perhaps a step back and playing at the Memorial Stadium will suit him better.
We signed centre backs who can play on-the-ball, and Baldwin certainly fits the bill in that regard, so fingers crossed he will turn out to be a good signing for us.
RR: The club sold top-scorer Jonson Clarke-Harris to League One side Peterborough in August for £1.25m - was it frustrating to see your best player sold to a rival club?
MA: I wouldn’t say frustrating. We had been trying to tie down JCH on a new contract for the best part of a year, and it was becoming increasingly evident that we were making no progress to secure his services beyond next summer.
With the danger of losing a prize asset on a free looming, and not for the first time in recent years, we felt the urge to sell was necessary, and the fee we received was decent. Replacing his goals however will be a huge task, and the signings of Brandon Hanlan and Jonah Ayunga haven’t convinced me as of yet.
RR: Bristol Rovers gained praise from the media for the signings of Max Ehmer from Gillingham and Zain Westbrooke from Coventry; how would you rate your transfer business overall this summer?
MA: Very solid. The names you mentioned above are fantastic additions and it’s clear that Rovers have been very proactive in the market this summer, when many other clubs have opted for stability. Sam Nicholson is another high profile addition who I think will stand out at this level, and we have added some talented young players to develop too.
RR: The club have finished in the bottom half of League One for the past three seasons, what are your aspirations for the 2020/21 campaign?
MA: The same again, for me.
That may not sound ambitious, but we have a young manager in his first full season and a young squad with a lot of potential. I think a season of developing this squad and Garner’s perceived style will help us finally establish ourselves a little as a stable club at this level, and then hopefully in seasons to come we can begin to push towards the playoffs.
RR: Manager Ben Garner endured a dreadful first half-season as manager, taking the club from 4th to 14th before the campaign was curtailed - were you surprised to see the club stick with him?
MA: No, it’s clear the board see him as a long-term choice for the club, and they buy into his vision for the brand of attacking football he wants to play.
Last season he had a squad of more physical, old-school football players who didn’t fit into his high-tempo possession ethos, and maybe naively he tried to get them to play in that way when they weren’t capable of it - hence the slide down the table. This season there are no excuses however, and he will be judged with his own complete squad.
RR: Despite the Coronavirus pandemic hitting many EFL clubs hard financially, Bristol Rovers are building a new training ground - what shape is the club in financially?
MA: Very good. The owners have written off the debt this summer, clearing £18m+ of debt that accumulated over a twenty-year period. As you mention, a training ground is being built and things seem to be moving in a very positive direction. I only hope the on-field project works this season, then I will start to get excited about the future.
RR: Bristol Rovers lost 3-0 in the Carabao Cup to Ipswich last week, did that performance worry you ahead of the new season?
MA: Yes, defensively we were very sloppy. The goals we conceded were routine balls over the top, and a free header. Considering the defensive additions this summer, the goals conceded were very schoolboy, and we will need to be a lot stronger mentally to compete against the likes of Ipswich and yourselves.
RR: Who are the eleven Bristol Rovers players you think Ben Garner will select against Sunderland, and what style of play can the Parkinson’s men expect to face?
MA: We play a possession 3-4-3, with two #10s operating behind a target man. Wing-backs are integral to the width and energy of the side. I think the line-up will be: Jaakkola; Harries Ehmer Kilgour; Leahy Grant; Westbrooke Rodman; Mitchell-Lawson; Ayunga Nicholson.
RR: Sunderland have beaten Rovers in three out of the four times the teams have faced one another in League One, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
MA: I think defensively we have been sloppy in the two cup games played, but with Anssi Jaakkola returning between the sticks I hope we will be a tad more organised.
Jonah Ayunga will cause problems, and I’m hoping Mitchell-Lawson and Nicholson can thrive off the chaos he creates up front. Ultimately I think the quality Sunderland have up front will prove too much for us, the likes of Graham, Maguire, Gooch, and Grigg all have tremendous experience.
I’m going 2-0 Sunderland.