After reaching the final of the EFL Trophy by beating Lincoln on Wednesday night, Sunderland return to League One action against Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium.
The Black Cats drew 1-1 with The Brewers back in December, with captain Max Power equalising after a horror mistake from Remi Matthews which allowed Charles Vernam to give Burton a shock lead.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Burton fan and D3D4 podcast co-host Edward Walker to discuss how his team have progressed since reappointing Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was rehired as Burton manager in January, was this decision popular with your fanbase and do you believe he can guide you to safety?
EW: The moment Jake Buxton was relieved of his duties as manager, there were plenty of calls from Burton fans to get Hasselbaink back in, given how much he is adored here and the immense success he had during his first spell.
I to be honest was a bit more skeptical about it. One of the main reasons Hasselbaink did so well in his first spell was because of him working alongside his then-assistant David Oldfield, and he hadn’t been able to recreate that success at any club after leaving Burton. Oldfield is the manager at Oxford City currently, and I couldn’t see him leaving there anytime soon, so I was unsure about whether Hasselbaink was the right man for the club, especially since he previously took over a Burton side that was targeting promotion and the club were in a completely different position this season.
He got announced on New Year’s Day, set to take full control on Monday 4th January, and naturally there was of course a lot of happy reactions to it as he is such a hugely loved figure here. What I particularly loved about the appointment though was that Hasselbaink would have Dino Maamria working as his assistant. Maamria is an excellent coach with a lot of lower league managerial experience and a track record of improving results at every single club he has been at. He in truth was the person I actually wanted in as manager, so to have him as part of the team alongside Jimmy Floyd was really encouraging to see.
From the moment they’ve arrived, I’ve considered Hasselbaink and Maamria to be a pair, as important as each other. Anybody who wants to praise Hasselbaink for the work he’s doing at Burton Albion should be putting Dino Maamria’s name in the same sentence. He is playing just as big a part in what is currently happening at the club.
MC: Since his appointment, The Brewers have beat Hull, Gillingham, and Northampton, whilst keeping clean sheets in all three - what has Hasselbaink changed which to achieve this?
EW: Hasselbaink and Maamria have basically gone back to the roots of what worked so well in Jimmy Floyd’s first spell. Burton were not a side under him that played particularly attractive football, but it was all built around a rock-solid spine that gave up very few high-quality chances and therefore kept a lot of clean sheets. The midfield unit provided a good mix of energy and technique to transition between defence and attack, whilst the frontline possessed enough quality to make the most of any opportunities that fell their way. Burton developed a real habit of winning games or securing draws with late goals. Most matches under him seemed to end either 1-0, 2-1, 0-0 or 1-1 and that’s what seems to be happening again here.
He doesn’t have the same personnel as he did 6 years ago, Lucas Akins is the only player who played under him back in Hasselbaink’s first spell, but he’s so far been able to make use of the players already here and the players he’s brought in to recreate the side that brought him so much success previously.
MC: Sunderland possesses a dreadful record against Burton, winning one of just six competitive fixtures - why do you think your team has become such a bogeyman for the Black Cats?
EW: I honestly haven’t got a clue why this is the case. Maybe the club feel haunted by memories of a certain previous meeting? I remember the first time Burton and Sunderland met, when the Black Cats won 2-0 at the Pirelli in 2017, and I can remember it really hurting as it was such an important fixture for both sides, with both goals coming late on.
You then had the infamous meeting at the Stadium of Light in April 2018, which is still the most memorable football match I can recall being at, just for the whole drama of the end of that second half alone. I’ve no doubt you guys have done everything you can to forget it!
I wonder maybe if the events of that day still cast a shadow over those at the club. 2018-19 obviously saw Burton beat Sunderland 2-1 at the Pirelli, can’t forget Chris Maguire’s cracker of a goal for Sunderland though, and got a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light. We only had the one meeting in 2019-20, but that was a 2-1 win for Burton at the Stadium of Light, and then you have the meeting in the first half of this season, where Sunderland came up against what for me is the worst Burton side I’ve seen since I started supporting the club, and they still got a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light.
It does feel like there’s been some kind of mental block whenever Sunderland face Burton Albion, particularly when the Black Cats are at home. I highly doubt Lee Johnson will feel that mental block ahead of this fixture though and that could well help Sunderland to get the 3 points they will no doubt be craving from this game at the Pirelli.
MC: Burton signed former Premier League defender Michael Mancienne in January, who was once called up by England, did that move come as a shock?
EW: It was certainly a surprise to me, I didn’t realise he was still playing!
Mancienne is someone I guess you could call a journeyman defender. I can just about remember the hype around him at Chelsea and how often he was being touted as a future International defender for England. It’s safe to say he’s never fulfilled that potential and he’s gone on to play in Germany and the USA with a long spell at Nottingham Forest in between.
He’s come to Burton Albion as part of his desire to move his family back to a familiar part of England during the pandemic, and it’s the first time he’s played at League One level. I’m quite excited by the signing in truth, he’s certainly still got good mobility for a centre-back with plenty of know-how about being in relegation battles from elsewhere. I don’t know how likely starts are because the other defenders at the club have been impressing Hasselbaink and Maamria so far, but he’ll be a good presence to have around the club during this period.
MC: In total, Burton signed 11 new players in January, five being loans. Hasselbaink has a fresh group to work with, but do you think such a huge turnaround could be difficult to gel together?
EW: Signing that many players typically does require a period of gelling together, but it seems to be proving effective so far. Hasselbaink has talked about fitting a pre-season’s worth of training into a period of about three to four weeks in January, which he’s able to do as his training sessions at Burton have been known for their high intensity and how rewarding they end up being as a result.
I think Burton have also benefitted from having no mid-week fixtures up to now since Hasselbaink and Maamria arrived. That’s given them the opportunities to get full weeks of training in, albeit they did also have to go through a period where the training ground was closed as we had a COVID breakout at the club which thankfully everyone has recovered fine from.
There’s a sense already that this team looks much more organised and competitive than they did under Jake Buxton, and the hope is that they can only improve as the season goes on and they get more opportunities to play together.
MC: Also, first-team regulars Stephen Quinn, Steven Lawless, Neil Eardley, and Charles Vernam all left the club - could you argue your squad was weakened in January?
EW: The squad is definitely stronger than it was before January. Charles Vernam is the only one of the four you’ve mentioned that Burton fans weren’t that pleased about leaving. It’s unsure as to exactly why Vernam was allowed to move to Bradford City, but Burton did manage to get a fee for him, and it’s known that he doesn’t offer a great deal defensively, which is something Hasselbaink and Maamria really want the wingers to contribute to in this system.
Stephen Quinn’s been a great servant for the club since Nigel Clough signed him early into 2018-19, but Burton have players in his position that can fill his role and it’s little surprise that Clough had interest in bringing him to Mansfield Town on a loan deal. He’s been effective there so far and should continue to do so for them.
Steven Lawless and Neal Eardley were players brought in under Jake Buxton that just didn’t work out. You were never quite sure where Lawless worked best. Buxton played him out on the left, out on the right and in midfield, and he didn’t particularly stand out in any of those positions. He’s probably the first player in a good while who’s come down from Scotland to Burton Albion and hasn’t worked out. Players like Jackson Irvine, Liam Boyce and Scott Fraser have in recent years but Lawless sadly couldn’t continue that trend.
I was happy with the Eardley signing when it happened because it meant that Burton finally had two natural right-backs in him and John Brayford. Under Nigel Clough, Burton for years only really had one natural right-back in Brayford and Clough would put Lucas Akins there at times if Brayford wasn’t available. Eardley unfortunately didn’t work out, and it soon became clear why Lincoln City had let him go, he’s past his best. He’s gone out on loan to Barrow where he should make a notable contribution and Burton have permanently signed a much younger right-back in Tom Hamer from Oldham Athletic, who previously worked under Dino Maamria whilst he was there.
The squad overall though has certainly improved from the beginning of January to the end, and the fans are very happy with the overall business. It’s clear that Hasselbaink and Maamria intend to fully have a go at getting Burton out of the bottom four, but they’ve also looked to bring in young, promising players on long-term deals and those players should be effective for Burton Albion no matter what division the club find themselves playing in next season. The long-term planning done in this window has been really impressive.
MC: When fit, Tom Flanagan has been a regular starter in Sunderland’s defence, did you think he would be a success on Wearside when he left Burton in 2018?
EW: I’ll be honest, Flanagan signing for Sunderland did surprise me. He was a player who I feel divided opinion when he first arrived at Burton, but towards the end of 2017-18 he was putting in some very impressive displays at left-back, which you probably would not expect me to say as he’s clearly a right-footed defender.
You’ll know better than me as to exactly how good and popular he is at Sunderland, he certainly can be a good defender at this level and has certainly been considered good enough for Northern Ireland in the past. I feel Sunderland’s squad should mostly contain players who can handle the considerable step up to the Championship, and I honestly don’t feel Flanagan is one of those players. If the Black Cats do manage to get promotion this season, I think you’d probably need to move him on elsewhere.
MC: Who are the eleven players you believe Hasselbaink will select against Sunderland and what style of play can Lee Johnson’s side expect to encounter?
EW: It’s been quite difficult so far to work out Burton’s starting eleven since Hasselbaink and Maamria arrived as they’ve only had four games in charge. The likelihood is that the team will be selected to combat what Sunderland possess under Lee Johnson, but there are some who I feel will start every game regardless of the opponent.
I would personally expect a 4-2-3-1 set-up with Ben Garratt in goal. Josh Earl, on loan from Preston North End, should be left-back, whilst John Brayford should be right-back. Hayden Carter, on loan from Blackburn Rovers, could well partner Michael Bostwick at centre-back as they look to contain a certain in-form striker.
I’d expect Sean Clare, who’s on loan from Oxford United, and Ryan Edwards to provide the immense energy in deep midfield, with either Ryan Broom, who is on loan from Peterborough United, or Joe Powell taking up the attacking midfield role behind the striker. Josh Parker should be out on the left, whilst Jonny Smith could be out on the right or used as an impact sub with former Ipswich and Lincoln winger Danny Rowe getting a first start ahead of him.
I’m not entirely sure if Burton’s ‘Number 9’ Kane Hemmings will be fit to play. There’s a decent chance he will, and he’ll be the lone striker if he’s fit. Lucas Akins will likely lead the line if Hemmings isn’t available and should play out on the right-wing if Hemmings is fit as he’s been the first name on every Burton team sheet for years now.
The actual XI I would personally predict is Garratt-Earl-Bostwick-Carter-Brayford-Clare-Edwards-Parker-Broom-Akins-Hemmings in a 4-2-3-1 formation from left to right.
In terms of what Lee Johnson’s side will face, I would expect something designed to combat what his team are best at. It’s quite easy to look at Sunderland currently and think ‘man mark McGeady and Wyke’ but the Black Cats of course have got so much more to them than just that. I would imagine Hasselbaink and Maamria’s approach could be similar to the one they used against Hull two weeks ago, form a solid base through the backline and deep midfielders that makes it very difficult for the opposition to get the ball into the box, and then utilise the technique and pace of the front four on the counterattack. Hemmings or Akins, depending on who plays, will likely be looked to as a focal point who can hold up the ball and lay it off to those pushing forwards to help them. Hemmings is certainly a lot better at this than Akins is though.
I would imagine Burton will also look to capitalise on any set-piece opportunities that come their way. Hasselbaink and Maamria will not be bothered about beating Sunderland by a big scoreline, they’ll want to see them off late into the game whilst keeping the ball out of the net at the other end.
MC: Burton shocked everyone by drawing 1-1 with Sunderland when the two sides last met, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
EW: Without wishing to sound too pessimistic, I do think Burton are due a defeat here. The four games Hasselbaink and Maamria have had so far have been very impressive, and they’ve taken Burton from being well adrift of even 23rd to being within touching distance of getting out of the bottom four altogether. They’ll have 19 games left to play after this weekend, with all 3 teams above them having played more than them. A defeat here really would not jeopardise Burton’s season at all, albeit it would be a minor setback potentially depending on results elsewhere.
I find it really hard to ignore the form McGeady and Wyke are in. That win over Doncaster last weekend really, really impressed me and it’s a perfect example of what Lee Johnson’s Sunderland can do to any team in this division. Therein lies the problem though, you’re never quite sure if that version of Sunderland is going to turn up on a matchday, and it’s the reason why the Black Cats find themselves chasing the play-offs rather than the top two at the moment. If the Sunderland of last week turn up at the Pirelli, they’re taking all three points. If that Sunderland doesn’t turn up at the Pirelli, Burton have got a chance of taking points off them.
I have a feeling substitutes could play a big part in this game for either side. One of the main reasons Hasselbaink and Maamria have brought in so many players since arriving is so that Burton can have a squad big enough to combat the fixture pile-up that’s inevitably coming before the season’s done. They’ll likely look to make those changes offensively to bring fresh legs on for late counter attacks, whilst I can see Lee Johnson looking to do the same thing for Sunderland if they haven’t been able to break Burton down early on.
In terms of a score prediction, I am going to go with a narrow Sunderland win. It would be extremely easy to say that the goal’s coming from a Charlie Wyke header off an Aiden McGeady cross, but why not?
Burton Albion 0-1 Sunderland.