Sunderland host Doncaster Rovers at the Stadium of Light today, with Lee Johnson’s side looking to end their three match league run without a win. The Black Cats currently sit in seventh, one point away from the playoff positions, whilst Donny sit fifth with two games in hand on most of their promotion rivals.
The two sides met back in November, with Doncaster striker Fejiri Okenabirhie scoring an injury time equaliser to place further pressure on Phil Parkinson. Grant Leadbitter had scored a screamer to open the scoring, but Sunderland were unable to secure the three points.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Doncaster Free Press sports writer and Sunderland fan Paul Goodwin, to find out his thoughts on Rovers’ potential promotion push, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Doncaster are currently just one point behind second-placed Hull in League One currently, do you think Darren Moore is underpraised for the brilliant work he is doing with the club on an average budget?
PG: Rovers started out in the summer with ten senior pros on the books, including an out of favour goalkeeper.
To have moulded a team so quickly into potential automatic promotion contenders, during a pandemic with limited resources, tells you everything about the job Moore is doing.
His man management, attention to detail and recruitment has been exceptional.
MC: Moore’s side have won ten out of their last 13 League One matches, winning seven of them by a one-goal margin - do you think Moore has installed a resilient winning mentality into the team which enables them to grind out victories?
PG: Rovers are extremely well coached, well organised and have a real togetherness.
They’re capable of outplaying anyone in this league on their day but they’ve also shown plenty of fighting spirit in the recent wins over Lincoln and Oxford, which bodes well.
Fleetwood on Tuesday night wasn’t so good. The next three games - against Sunderland, Accrington and Hull - are going to reveal whether a top two finish is realistic.
MC: It was no secret that Ben Whiteman was Donny’s best player and he fully deserved his January move to the Championship - how are the club coping with filling the gap of such a talented player?
PG: They’ve coped very well in the immediate aftermath of his departure but losing a player of that quality might ultimately catch up with them between now and the end of the season.
Matt Smith, a young Wales international on loan from Manchester City, has really stepped up to the plate as a deep-lying playmaker.
Brighton loanee Taylor Richards also has star quality and the ability to conjure up a defence-splitting pass or brilliant finish out of nothing.
MC: In terms of incomings, Moore signed both ex-Spurs midfielder John Bostock and Omar Bogle from Charlton - are they both players you think can improve the starting XI?
PG: They’ve both added some much-needed competition for places in vital positions.
The most exciting signing was the return of winger Josh Sims on loan.
He was outstanding during the first half of the season and everyone expected him to move to a Championship club in January - so for him to return speaks volumes about the positive environment at Rovers.
MC: On the topic of recruitment, Doncaster have signed some brilliant loan players in Josh Sims (Southampton), Matt Smith (Man City) and Ellery Balcombe (Brentford) - how important are loan players to your squad and are you surprised Sunderland have not utilised this market further?
PG: There can’t be many other EFL clubs using the loan system as effectively as Rovers.
I’ve been critical of them perhaps over-relying on loan players in the past but no one can currently question the calibre of player coming in.
Moore loves working with younger players and Rovers have worked hard to develop relationships with the top clubs. They’re trusted to develop these players.
Sadly, I’m not sure Sunderland have the same level of trust within the game. All too often they seem reluctant to give the young lads a chance.
MC: Former Sunderland left-back Reece James appears to be enjoying his transition into midfield, scoring five goals so far this season, are you surprised by how well is performing in a completely new role?
PG: Reece has reverted to left-wing this month. He did a great job in centre midfield for an extended run of games and displayed a cool head in front of goal! He’s got a good football brain and ability on the ball.
It’s been one of the themes of this season, players playing out of their normal positions - mainly due to the small size of the squad.
The players are well drilled in the requirements for every position and Moore trusts his players to operate in various roles.
MC: It was announced this week that the salary cap will be removed for League One and Two clubs, did that come across as positive or negative news for Doncaster?
PG: Rovers aren’t big spenders so it’s undoubtedly going to make it harder to get promoted and compete with the bigger clubs, so in that sense it’s a negative.
However, the chief executive Gavin Baldwin is actually in favour of a revenue-based salary cap. Rovers are part of a sporting club (Club Doncaster) which includes the Belles, rugby league club and various commercial operations and it has the ability to generate extra revenue to spend on the team.
MC: Who are the eleven Donny players you believe Moore will select and what style of play can Sunderland fans expect to see?
PG: (4-1-4-1) Balcombe; Halliday, Wright, Butler, John; Smith; Taylor, Bostock, Richards, James; Okenabirhie.
Tom Anderson, who has been outstanding at centre back, appeared to suffer a concussion at Fleetwood and is a major doubt.
The game may also come too soon for Sims (hamstring).
Rovers like to get the ball down and play. They can break quickly and they’ve got attacking players who’ll try and get in between the lines.
They’re not the biggest of teams and in the reverse fixture they really struggled when Sunderland pressed very high and stopped them playing out from the back.
MC: The two sides drew 1-1 back in November - what is your honest prediction of the final score at the Stadium of Light?