Matthew Crichton: Oxford currently sit 8th in League One, just six points from the top spot - is this the year that you finally achieve promotion to the Championship?
George Dugdale: The last couple of seasons have taught me the futility of making bold predictions, but we are in a better position than we have been in the last couple of seasons.
We upgraded our trademark disastrous start for a steady beginning to the campaign and this solid foundation will allow us to make some mistakes along the way, rather than relying on miraculous, near flawless runs in the second half of the season as we have seen previously.
I suppose a repeat of the run-ins of previous campaigns could elevate us above the play-offs this season, but I’d be very pleased with another crack at the play-offs. This is a competitive league this season and being in the conversation come May would be a very reasonable effort.
MC: Whilst Sunderland have pulled the trigger on many managers in League One, Oxford have stuck with Karl Robinson since 2018. What would you say are his best features?
GD: I am a huge fan of the manager, but would say that some of his best and worst features are often the same thing. His passion and desire to win are extraordinary, but his passion and desire to win are often the contributing factors in touchline bans and heightened rivalries with opposition benches. You know what you are getting with Karl Robinson and if he is in your dugout, you know you have a manager who will fight for the badge on the shirt.
The thing that impresses me the most about him is the extent to which he manages the football club, rather than the football team. He is a great ambassador for the football club’s work across Oxfordshire and takes a considerable interest in things that others may turn a blind eye to.
He is a frequent attendee of the women’s team fixtures and his work in setting up a Down’s Syndrome team is a great example of the kind of person he is behind the formidable touchline presence opposition fans tend to take exception to.
MC: Oxford are unbeaten in six League One matches, are we facing you at the worst possible time?
GD: This is a difficult one to answer. The form is very good, but the last four points have come against the odds. The squad was decimated by Covid for the fixtures against Fleetwood Town and Rotherham United, with an emergency goalkeeper learning our tactics in the warm-up and the back four being unrecognisable from the previous week.
As such, the team that face Sunderland will not be the team that played in the last couple of games where anybody who could play did play! We are not entirely sure who has made it back because some are struggling with the lingering effects of Covid, but the morale is high after crossing the significant hurdles of the past couple of weeks.
We aren’t the best team in the league and we aren’t the worst team in the league. What the last couple of weeks may suggest, however, is that we graft as hard as anybody in the league. At the very least, I hope we are stubborn opposition.
MC: Your side have the third best defensive record in League One, what are the factors behind your success?
GD: It always surprises me when our defensive stats are so impressive. I still view us a footballing side who are vulnerable at times due to our style. We certainly don’t bank up on the edge of our own box, so it is all credit to the coaches and defenders that we are still limiting opponents.
The numbers don’t lie and any improvement in the defence could be the difference between a failed play-off campaign and going one step further this season.
I think the key factor would be consistency, although that has gone out of the window in recent weeks! Until then, it had largely been Jack Stevens in goal, Elliott Moore and Jordan Thorniley at centre-back with Sam Long and Steve Seddon either side of them. That’s a solid backline for this level.
Glandular fever took Stevens out of the squad first, before Covid took Moore, Thorniley and reserve keeper Simon Eastwood away for Fleetwood and Rotherham. This moved Long to centre-back and chaos should probably have ensued.
That it didn’t is a credit to the coaching staff, so I’ll give them all the credit for any improvement across the campaign so far.
MC: Robinson’s team have won 7/10 at home, but just 2/7 away, why do you think you’re struggling away from home?
GD: This will be the factor that dictates just how successful a campaign this is. We have made our home a bit of a fortress, but there have been some frustrating days on the road.
We really should have started the campaign with wins against Cambridge and Bolton, but contrived to take just one point from those games despite leading in both. We deserved absolutely nothing from AFC Wimbledon and Cheltenham, but thankfully there has been an improvement recently.
We have taken 7 points from Sheffield Wednesday, Burton and Ipswich, so hopefully a corner has been turned.
The early performances were a combination of wasteful finishing and poor defending, but the last three away games have been a huge improvement. Hopefully this continues at another difficult ground to visit this weekend.
MC: Who are the main players that you would say Sunderland need to be wary of during the match?
GD: The good thing about this team is that the stand-out performer can be different every week. We have no over-reliance on any one player and I think that has to be seen as a positive.
I thought life without Matty Taylor would be difficult, but others stood up and we were hugely threatening against Fleetwood. Nathan Holland has been a growing influence in recent weeks, but I think our midfield three is the key to our success.
We have unfortunately lost Alex Gorrin to a serious knee injury, so have no choice but to go for the ball-playing midfield of Herbie Kane, Cameron Brannagan and James Henry. Marcus McGuane can drop into this three with Henry moving wide right, but I expect to see Kane, Brannagan and Henry together at Sunderland.
They may not have the grit of a Gorrin midfield, but they can all pass a football. When they are at their best, it’s a joy to watch. Keep them all fit and firing this season and we will have a chance.
MC: On the other hand, what would you describe as the weak spots in your team?
GD: It isn’t usually the weak spot, but left-back will be this weekend. Steve Seddon is suspended and it’s the one position we don’t have a natural replacement for.
Sam Long could swap flanks or Jordan Thorniley could slot in, with Luke McNally keeping his centre-back berth after starring against Rotherham.
Whatever Karl Robinson chooses to do, it won’t be what we have done all season so will have to be viewed as a potential area for concern.
MC: What style of play can Lee Johnson’s side expect to encounter and which eleven players do you think will play?
GD: This is an interesting one. I would say that we play attractive football and look to take games by the scruff of the neck.
I took immense satisfaction in hearing chants of “Boring, Boring Oxford” from the Ipswich fans at Portman Road a couple of weeks ago as we showed some game intelligence to see the game out for our point and become the first team to keep a clean sheet there this season.
In previous years we would have kept chasing a winner and risked being picked off, but lessons appear to have been learned and we respected our point. We have been too nice to play at times and annoying the perceived big teams in this league is something that I am very much on board with.
I suspect we will see a similarly pragmatic performance against Sunderland. We will begin the game with every intention of controlling the match, but may change approach in the final quarter of the game if we have something to hold on for. If Ipswich fans thought we were spoilers, they are in for a treat when a couple of other sides I won’t mention come to town!
As for the eleven, I’d love to tell you but I’m not entirely sure which players are still struggling with the virus. The news from the training ground has been deliberately vague and I can’t help you any further!
I suspect Simon Eastwood will be chosen in goal as Jack Stevens continues to strengthen after glandular fever. Sam Long will play somewhere in the backline, probably at right-back with Jordan Thorniley covering Seddon’s absence at left-back.
Moore and McNally would be my pick for centre-back if Thorniley shifts over, although there is an option for a Hanson - Moore - Thorniley - Long back four.
Honestly, all the best in guessing the backline! Kane and Brannagan are likely to be joined in midfield by Henry, with the pace of Nathan Holland and Gavin Whyte on the flanks. Matty Taylor will lead the line.
MC: Sunderland have won their last three matches against Oxford - what is your prediction for the final score?
GD: I think we might end up taking another good point on the road. I’ll go for a 1-1 draw.