Sunderland travel to Milton Keynes for the second time this week, where they will face Russell Martin’s MK Dons in League One. The Black Cats currently sit sixth in League One, whilst their opponents are placed in 16th, eight points above the relegation zone.
Lee Johnson’s side won 3-0 on Tuesday night, courtesy of goals from Aiden McGeady, Charlie Wyke and a Dean Lewington own goal, to book their place in the EFL Trophy semi-finals. However, Martin’s side shocked Sunderland by winning 2-1 at the Stadium of Light back in October, with ex-target Scott Fraser netting the winner.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to MK Dons fan Martin Atherton of The MK Way Blog, to discuss his thoughts on Tuesday’s cup match, as well as his views on his team’s performance so far in League One this season.
MC: First and foremost, how do you feel about MK Dons re-signing Will Grigg and do you believe Russell Martin can get him back to his old self?
MA: I’m excited! But certainly don’t think he’ll be anything like his former self. We desperately needed someone to come in and just give Joe Mason some competition with both Carlton Morris and Ste Walker having left and Charlie Brown making a recovery from illness, so hopefully he can at least offer us something – I reckon he’ll get 4/5 goals tops. If it’s true we’re only paying 25% of his wages, it sounds like a bargain as well.
Obviously, for the fans it’s huge as well - he’s somewhat of a cult hero hereafter not just that 4-0 win over United, but the whole of the 2014/15 promotion campaign. Great character in the dressing room as well.
MC: Your club currently sit 16th in League One, which from an outside perspective seems underwhelming considering you signed the likes of Scott Fraser and Cameron Jerome, would you agree with that?
MA: Not actually heard anyone say that yet! I think most people know that it was our slow start, owing to the big losses over the summer and the adaptation to the 3-5-2, that has us in a bit of a ‘false league position’ (though I hate that cliché – we are where we are because we were poor).
Since about late October - once we finally got going - we’ve been a fairly tidy upper-mid-table outfit, picking up 26 points from 17 games – 1.53ppg. Based on last season’s PPG table, that’d stick us 10th if we’d had that form throughout the whole campaign which I think is a fair representation of where our team should be, bar that false start. We’ll slowly climb into the top half over the next few months, I reckon.
Everyone always knew this would be a bit of a ‘transition’ campaign as we build a squad capable of challenging - nobody more so than some of the star lads when they signed. All eyes on next season in our camp.
MC: Now that you have been knocked out of all cup competitions, what do you think the aim should be for MK Dons for the rest of the season?
MA: Yeah, it’s all a bit of a dress rehearsal for next season now, I think. I am keen to see us experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and get our team gelled and ready for a promotion push this time next year. There’s a genuine belief around the club and the fanbase that we can do something great in 2022, but there’s a lot of processes, learning and building between now and then.
I think along the way we may have a few drubbings, though, and nothing to suggest that won’t happen on Saturday against a good side like your own!
MC: The team has a clear style of play under Martin to play out from the back, which whilst it is attractive it can lead to mistakes in dangerous areas - are fans fully on board with this strategy?
MA: It is scary at times! But the vast majority of our fans really do see the benefits to it. I imagine if fans were in the ground there would be plenty of ‘Hoof it! Get rid!’ shouts, but thankfully they’re not.
Our ‘keeper and all of our backline are very comfortable with the ball at their feet, so it certainly works a lot more often than it doesn’t. Keep an eye out on Harry Darling, who is exceptionally good at playing out from the back from what we’ve seen so far.
MC: MK Dons lost an array of players in January, such as Richard Keogh, Regan Poole, Carlton Morris, Stephen Walker and Baily Cargill - have suitable reinforcements been signed, or would you say the squad has weakened?
MA: Certainly a few worries with outgoings! But we’ve strengthened hugely over January – arguably the best window in our club’s short history. Whilst we lost a few key players, most of them are lads on big wages and we’ve replaced them with cheaper, younger, and in most cases better alternatives. I imagine it might take us a few games for them to all gel together, though.
MC: Looking at the replacements signed, your five permanent January signings were all aged 23 and under - do you think MK Dons have fully grasped that the best way to defeat the wage cap is to buy young up and coming players?
MA: Yeah, definitely so – you’re spot on. Taking in young and developing has always been part of ‘The MK Way’ and how we operate as a club, but under Russ/thanks to the wage cap we’ve very much seen that taken to a new level. We’ve paid fees for a few of those five, as well, and I think we’ll see a great return on investment for those.
MC: Judging from Tuesday’s match, which Sunderland players caught your eye the most and why?
MA: Difficult to tell really – Tuesday’s match was more like a friendly than a cup tie so not a great example. I really like Luke O’Nien and thought he stood out in central midfield, the one area we did go somewhat full-strength with Fraser and O’Riley in there. Nice to see Tom Flanagan back at Stadium:MK as well! Wyke’s a great player – sure he’ll be up for proving Cammy wrong on Saturday after his fishing trip on Twitter last November.
MC: Who are the eleven players you believe Martin will select against Sunderland and which players could make a difference who did not play on Tuesday?
MA: It’s a tricky one with a fair few new lads and some out injured, but I’d go:
(3-5-2): Fisher; O’Hora, Darling, Lewington (C); Laird, Harvie; Fraser, Gladwin, Sørensen; Jerome, Mason.
MC: The two sides have one victory each over one another this season, what is your honest prediction of the final score on Saturday?
MA: It’ll be a very, very tough game for us. I think a 1-1 draw, though, as we’ve been in pretty decent form recently and become a lot harder to beat than we were. Best of luck for the season and in the semi-final!