Sunderland travel to Shropshire tonight, where they will face Shrewsbury Town at Meadow Lane. The two sides met under a month ago at the Stadium of Light, with Charlie Wyke’s header proving decisive as Sunderland won 1-0.
Shrewsbury have been reborn under former Sunderland assistant manager Steve Cotterill, moving from 23rd to 17th during his two and a half months with the club. Lee Johnson’s side are unbeaten in four League One matches but draws are preventing the squad from mounting a serious promotion push.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Ollie from Salopcast, to discuss what has occurred at Shrewsbury since the two sides last faced, as well as the progress of former Sunderland right-back Donald Love.
MC: Steve Cotterill remains in hospital where he continues his fight against COVID-19, how has assistant manager Aaron Wilbraham been doing in his absence?
O: Aaron Wilbraham has been doing a grand job in Cotterill’s absence despite being thrown straight in at the deep end since joining the club in December. Supported by Dave Longwell, Wilbraham first took control away to Southampton in the FA Cup; while that game ended in defeat, I was pleased to see Longwell and Wilbraham make tactical changes throughout the game.
Results have been up and down, but performances have remained positive. Cotterill’s love of the game is fierce and he has been supporting Wilbraham from his hospital bed, he has advised on match preparation and is even calling the squad at halftime after watching on iFollow.
MC: Shrewsbury have kept six clean sheets in their last nine games, which has helped push the club up to 17th in the table - what has prompted your defence to become so solid?
O: We have quality in the squad and players willing to put in a shift. The change came following a change in manager. The team now look well drilled, organised and coached. We were regularly conceding soft goals or goals from individual errors. The number of errors has dramatically decreased and individual performances much improved.
For example, Aaron Pierre is among the best central defenders in League One but his form was poor. He wasn’t playing like the player we saw last season. Under the management of Cotterill his form dramatically improved. The whole team works incredibly hard to earn clean sheets. It just shows you what a good manager can do!
MC: The two sides faced one another just two weeks ago, what do you think your players will have to change to stop Sunderland coming away with another three points?
O: Our performance against Sunderland was a poor one. It was our second game of the week after three weeks off due to Covid-19. We looked leggy and failed to create clear cut chances. Ro-Shaun Williams was playing out of position and struggled to stop the cross from McGready.
However, if we play to our potential, we can certainly get a result against Sunderland. Since Cotterill’s arrival we have beaten Lincoln, Doncaster, Hull, Peterborough and drew with Charlton. Some of those results were before new recruitments arrived. It won’t be an easy game for Johnson’s men.
MC: Our old friend Donald Love appears to have reclaimed his starting place in the Shrewsbury side after looking likely to leave, how has he performed since he returned to the team?
O: D Love was frozen out by Sam Ricketts but was brought back into the side through necessity and lack of options. However, Love has been solid; he has won his tackles, keeps possession and makes good decisions. I wouldn’t be surprised if we tried to recruit a right back/wing back in the window, but given this season is now just about achieving a mid-table finish, I think D Love can do the job.
MC: After originally being front-runners, Shrewsbury missed out on signing Sunderland striker Will Grigg on deadline day - were you disappointed to not see that move happen?
O: Not really. I don’t think spending money on Grigg this season would have been a good investment, but let’s assume Sunderland were going to pay the vast majority of his wage, I still don’t think he was the player we needed. We needed a target man who was ready to play and match fit.
MC: Instead, the club signed Curtis Main from Aberdeen, do you think he is an upgrade on Jason Cummings who left for Dundee?
O: Jason Cummings was never near the starting line-up. I don’t think it is unfair to say he didn’t perform anywhere near as well as we hoped. Cummings will probably be happier up in Scotland and can get back into form and enjoying his football again.
Curtis Main is the target man we needed and on Saturday against Swindon he was superb. He held up the ball and laid it off to Harry Chapman to score from distance. We need a pivot up top to maximise the quality in the squad.
MC: On-loan Blackburn winger Harry Chapman has scored three goals in his first four Shrewsbury games - is he the main man Sunderland will have to be wary of?
O: Chapman is certainly the main man at the moment, he is a quality player for League One. Also worth keeping your eye on is our new left-back Nath Ogbeta. We signed him from Man City U23s, he played for England through all the age groups and looks like a real player.
MC: Who are the eleven players who you believe Cotterill/Wilbraham will select for the match?
O: We changed formation against Swindon due to Pierre’s injury going from 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1. Assuming Pierre is not ready to play, I expect the following line up:
Sarkic (GK), Love, Ebanks, Williams, Ogbeta, Norburn, Vela, Goss, Whalley, Main, Chapman.
MC: Last season Shrewsbury beat Sunderland 1-0 at New Meadow, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
O: Shrewsbury to win 1-0
It’s out favourite score line! (Whoever scores first will win).