Sunderland face Northampton tomorrow at the Sixfields Stadium in their first match of 2021. It will be Lee Johnson’s side’s first match in over half a month, with their last four games being postponed due to an outbreak of COVID-19 within the squad.
The Black Cats currently sit 11th in the League One table, but have up to four games in hand on their rival clubs. In contrast, The Cobblers are anxiously sitting in 19th, just two points above the relegation places.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Northampton fan Brendan Walsh to discuss how his side have fared since achieving promotion from League Two, as well what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Northampton were promoted from League Two via the playoffs last season. Is the club’s goal simply to avoid relegation this season?
BW: 100%! I think a few of the fans would have wanted more but maybe they are not being realistic. We were extremely lucky to be promoted, the season ended and we just scraped into playoffs on the PPG and then put in our two best performances of the season in the play off semi-final and final.
Then the turnover on that team has been very high also. We lost our captain and player of the season Charlie Goode to Brentford and the large transfer fee received has largely gone towards the losses due to COVID-19. Our strike force that caused so many problems from January onwards last season have both moved on and there were some other changes too. So far it could be argued that the team we have now in League One is not as competitive as our squad last season in League Two. So yes, survival at any cost would be the goal!
MC: Manager Keith Curle guided the club away from relegation in his first season in charge, before successfully mounting a promotion push the following season. Is he under pressure currently or are the board backing him?
BW: He’s under pressure because you can’t go four or five games without a point in this league and not worry about your job. We tend to have periods like that and then put four or five results together, rinse and repeat.
He’s been allowed to sign some free agents of late and the Chairman came out and backed him so I think he’ll be given more time. We’re not bottom of the table and have a chance at survival so I think as long as that stands, he’ll be the manager here.
MC: The Cobblers’ marquee summer signings were striker Danny Rose from Mansfield and defender Cian Bolger from Lincoln. How have those two performed so far this season?
BW: Bolger was given the captain’s armband from the off, which was an odd decision. I don’t think many would argue he has hit the ground running. He shows some signs in the odd game but we haven’t found any consistency in our back three like last season and he’s suffering from that.
Filling Charlie Goode’s boots was always going to be a tough ask. Personally I don’t think we will find a replacement but we can find better defensive options to combine to keep us up.
Danny Rose has also shown glimpses, four goals in all comps so far makes him our joint top goal scorer. He’s always running and really puts a shift in both directions on the pitch. Personally I’d like to see him start week in, week out and be allowed to kick on.
MC: Which Northampton player do you believe the Sunderland players will have to be wary of during the match?
BW: Super Sammy Hoskins plays pretty much every minute for Cobblers and is always a nuisance. Some might question his final ball or finishing ability but he’ll take shots on and be direct.
MC: Former Northampton defender Charlie Goode was linked with Sunderland in the summer, before moving to Championship side Brentford for £1m. How big of a loss has he been to the side?
BW: A big loss. He really connected with the fans as well and even donated his signing bonus from Brentford to the club’s academy.
We took him from the reserves at Scunthorpe on loan, and in 18 months he had captained us to Wembley and moved to the Championship. He also led us as deep as we’d gone into the FA Cup for 40 odd years so we have fond memories.
We’re unlikely to find a player again of his quality as I mentioned so I think getting three equally adept CBs for Curle’s system should be the priority.
MC: The two sides last faced in 2008 during a League Cup were Northampton went 2-0 up, before a late brace from Anthony Stokes led to Sunderland winning on penalties. Do you find it strange facing the club again but this time as equals in League One?
BW: I still find it very strange!
It was the first fixture I looked for on the list in the summer. Sunderland away for us is the last game of the season and I’m hoping for some sort of miracle with the vaccine that allows us to go.
I grew up watching Sunderland in the Premier League and even challenging for Europe so will feel very strange to see them lining up opposite the Cobblers.
The last time Sunderland and Northampton faced one another was back in 2008!— Matthew Crichton (@MattyCrichton) December 31, 2020
Sunderland won 4-3 on penalties after substitute Anthony Stokes scored a late brace.
Roy Keane played eight internationally capped players in his starting XI, how times have changed... #SAFC pic.twitter.com/gzL5u6WOwk
MC: Sunderland’s past four fixtures have been postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the squad. Do you have confidence that the League One season will be completed or do you think we could see another points-per-game finish?
BW: I think football has shown that it can carry on. A circuit break or postponement of the whole league will just mean more games to play in the summer. Footballers and the staff would be considered low risk, I can’t see why clubs that don’t have outbreaks within the team can’t play.
If you need to shut down training and fill the games in later in the season, fair enough that’s on the clubs.
MC: Who are the eleven players you believe Curle will select against Sunderland and what style of play can Johnson’s side expect to face?
BW: I think Mitchell will play again in goal. Then probably a back three of Jones, Bolger and Sheehan, who is a big plus to have back. Local lad McWilliams should play in the middle and I reckon it will be Sowerby to partner him. I couldn’t tell you who will play in the WB role as it’s a mystery so often with Curle!
I then think it will be Hoskins, Rose and maybe Benny Ashley-Seal up top in some combination. We have a reputation of being very direct and physical but this season showed more desire to play the ball in the right moments. I think we’ll sit deep and try and frustrate Sunderland, while making the most of set pieces and counter attacks.
MC: Sunderland have won both away matches so far under Lee Johnson’s management, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
BW: I’d like to say Curle can set up to frustrate Sunderland. He’s had a week’s break with our Boxing Day game postponed and a good result in the week at home to Gillingham. I would hope Sunderland are not fully match sharp after a much longer break and we can capitalise on that
1-1 draw for me!