FinalizeSunderland face Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium today in their second fixture of the 2020/21 League One season. Phil Parkinson’s men drew 1-1 with Bristol Rovers in their opening fixture, whilst Karl Robinson’s team were beaten 2-0 by Lincoln City.
Last season the two sides met three times, as Oxford failed to beat Sunderland from open play. However, The U’s knocked the Black Cats out of the Carabao Cup on penalties following a Will Grigg miss.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Oxford fan George Dugdale of BT Sport to discuss how his team have coped since losing the playoff final, and their aspirations for the new campaign.
MC: After a brilliant end to last season, Oxford lost 2-1 to Wycombe in the League One playoff final - do you think this will spur the players on for this season or perhaps to give a disappointment hangover?
GD: I wish we could have swerved talking about that but I suppose we have to. It was a painful day and one that left a massive sense of what could and probably should have been.
The good news is that the club as a whole has reacted far better than I did. The feeling around the club seems to be one of genuine determination to right what the players feel was a huge opportunity missed.
With the manager signing a new contract and some positive recruitment, there has been plenty of opportunity to look forward and genuinely believe that last season was a step in the journey and not the peak.
MC: The club have made some impressive signings in securing striker Matty Taylor permanently, Sean Clare from Hearts and Marcus McGuane on loan from Nottingham Forest - are you happy with the players the club brought in overall?
GD: I am very happy so far. I say so far because we definitely need a little bit more. We aren’t the quickest side at the moment so some raw pace on the left flank would be useful. If Cardiff don’t fancy giving Gavin Whyte a game, I would really like him back on loan. His fellow countryman Joel Cooper is an exciting addition from Linfield and Derek Osei Yaw is a wildcard attacking signing who seems to have a happy habit of finding himself in the right areas.
Keeping Matty Taylor was vital because he guarantees goals. This is his club and stopping others from poaching him was a big success. McGuane has a high ceiling and seems hungry to show Nottingham Forest just how good he is, so that’s an exciting one. Liam Kelly has returned from Feyenoord and will hope to really kick on this season.
Another signing that could yield high rewards is Sam Winnall. He will take a while to get back to fitness but his record in this division is excellent. The biggest signing was undoubtedly keeping Cameron Brannagan. We expected to lose him to a Championship club but a new deal and the reward of the captaincy was great news for all involved.
MC: Having said that, Oxford did sell their best defender Rob Dickie to Championship side QPR, has he been adequately replaced?
GD: We all loved Rob but there was no hiding the fact that as soon as we lost the play-off final he would be leaving. He was probably the most gutted of all the players at full-time which shows what we have managed to build here. He will go on to have a good career and we are hoping the same for his replacement Rob Atkinson.
Formerly nicknamed the Vanarama Van Dijk, he was signed in January but stayed out on loan. He, like Dickie, loves to carry the ball out of defence and looks like a real talent. A goal-costing error and a red card on his Football League debut don’t quite tell the story of what we think he can become. I’m really excited by what I have seen. There will be errors while he learns his trade, but his signing feels like good long-term vision by the club.
MC: The U’s begun their League One campaign with a 2-0 defeat away at Lincoln despite enjoying more possession, what went wrong during the match?
GD: We fell behind early due to an error and that allowed Lincoln to sit in and hit us on the break. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have as much pace as we would like at the moment and Joel Cooper was only on the bench after being away with Northern Ireland.
We are going to come up against organised defences a lot this season so displaying the craft to break that down will be important moving forwards. A disappointing start, but there is plenty of time to put things right.
MC: During Oxford’s Carabao Cup tie against Watford captain John Mousinho went off injured, does Karl Robinson have an injury crisis to deal with at the back currently?
GD: There will be a need to bring in another centre back if Mousinho’s knee injury is as awkward as feared. Left-back Josh Ruffels also injured his shoulder so we are down to the final few in the backline.
Atkinson’s red card being overturned (it was a banker second yellow but the referee inexplicably gave a straight red) is a fortunate boost so he will line up alongside Elliott Moore in our usual centre half pairing. Sean Clare will probably start at right-back with Sam Long moving over to the left. It’s already a struggle but until the next injury, we should be alright.
MC: The Coronavirus pandemic has had a negative financial impact on many football clubs across the United Kingdom, what shape are Oxford in financially as a result?
GD: We were all gutted to lose Shandon Baptiste and Tariqe Fosu to Brentford in January, but in hindsight, that has really helped us. Add the income from Rob Dickie’s transfer and our buy low-sell high philosophy has proven sustainable at a time when most clubs aren’t.
MC: Last season Sky Sports presenter Dave Jones was appointed to Sunderland’s board and was previously part of Oxford’s - during his time with the club did he make any significant impact on decisions?
GD: He was certainly helpful when it came to recruitment. He has a decent phone book and Cameron Brannagan is one deal that reflects very positively on him.
He was a part of a largely successful time at the club if we gloss over Pep Clotet’s reign, but you’d have to have been inside the walls of the club to really know how much of a role he had to play. Nice guy though!
MC: Who are the eleven Oxford players you predict Karl Robinson to select against Sunderland, and what formation/style of play can Phil Parkinson’s men expect to face?
GD: I would expect it to be a 4-3-3, but the personnel is more of a challenge. We have some real flexibility in the midfield and wide positions. I don’t think Sam Winnall is ready, so it won’t be far away from what we had out at Lincoln last week.
Eastwood will be in goal, with Clare, Moore, Atkinson and Long in the backline. Liam Kelly will sit in front of the defence with Alex Gorrin out for a few weeks. Captain Cameron Brannagan will be on one side of the three and it’s between McGuane, Sykes and Henry for the other midfield spot.
One of Henry and Sykes will play on the right and I really fancy Cooper to come in for a first start in the league on the left. I suspect McGuane will be benched, with Henry’s craft coming into the midfield three. Matty Taylor will lead the line.
MC: Oxford failed to beat Sunderland in open play last season, what is your honest prediction of the final score on Saturday?
GD: Early season games are a nightmare to predict. I think this may well be a draw as it so often is between the two clubs in recent times. Our home form was good last season so with a bit of pace and purpose added to last week’s side with Cooper, I’d hope to be more threatening than at Lincoln.