Sunderland travel to the Wham Stadium tonight, to face an Accrington Stanley team they have not faced since September 2019 due to the effects of COVID-19.
Lee Johnson’s men currently sit fourth in League One, just three points from the automatic promotion spots, whilst John Coleman’s team are placed further down in 13th, five points from the playoffs.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Accrington fan Josh Cook of the Raw Milk fanzine and podcast, to discuss how Coleman’s side have been performing this season, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Accrington currently sit in mid-table, still with a chance of finishing in the playoffs - do you think considering your budget and infrastructure that is a very good achievement for the club?
JC: It’s a massive achievement even being in this division if I’m honest. I know that might make a few readers roll their eyes but it’s true.
Realistic Accrington fans would have snapped your hand off for 20th before a ball was kicked taking into account the uncertainty of the pandemic. To be four points off the playoffs and in the mix at this stage is a bit of a dream.
MC: John Coleman has an excellent record of signing unknown non-league players, for example, Dion Charles and Colby Bishop, and making them perform at superior levels - do you think he receives enough credit for the job he does at Accrington?
JC: No I don’t. I think he and his coaching staff are underrated and overlooked by many.
I’m not sure why that is, perhaps it’s his way with the media or how he comes across, but year after year he is defying odds and taking the next step up. He is Mr Accrington Stanley, well and truly.
MC: The club also appear to thrive on signing released academy players or loan players from Premier League academies - what do makes Accrington an attractive move for young players?
JC: We’re under no illusion of our place at this level. But, we offer something attractive to a certain type of player who is hungry and has something to prove.
For example, Matt Butcher has come in this season on a free from Bournemouth and has arguably been our best player. We offer players two-year deals often now under the promise that if you do well you’ll get that move to a ‘bigger’ club and we both profit from it.
Couple that with the way we play football and the direction that the club is going and it’s a win-win. Loanees find their way to us now because higher division teams know that it’s a great baptism of fire to come and play with us, often an old-fashioned style that is rarely seen in modern football.
MC: Aiden McGeady has played against Accrington four times for Sunderland, scoring in each match - how do you think your team will approach handling him given the brilliant form he in?
JC: We’ve changed formation this season which will hopefully put another body around him when he goes forward and drag him back when we have the ball.
That’s an incredible record though, hopefully it doesn’t continue tonight.
MC: I remember Paul Smyth scoring and causing all sorts of problems in Accrington’s sole visit to the Stadium of Light back in early 2019 - what impact has he made since he rejoined the club on loan?
JC: He’s picked up where he left off. I was there that night and the goal was a great move.
That’s what he offers us, pulling defences apart with his pace and being able to link to the other forwards. He had a tough spell at Charlton and may just be one of the many players that we get the best out of.
Having said that, he is carrying a bit of a knock from last week so hopefully he’s shaken that off.
MC: Accrington possess a highly youthful team this season, who are the three players Sunderland should be wary of during the match?
JC: We do but many of them are injured at the minute. The strikers have been on fire, Charles and Bishop.
Also, Butcher in the midfield has been quality all year and of course, then Sean McConville can put it on a plate from the wing. That’s four isn’t it actually...
MC: In Sunderland’s three visits to the Wham Stadium, they have scored three goals each time - how do you think Coleman will approach preventing that from happening again?
JC: We’re on a shocking run of form and we’re leaking goals like nobody’s business.
I think we have to try and get hold of the ball and play our game. That’s when we’ve really clicked this season, when we worry less about the opposition and concentrate more about ourselves.
It’s easy to get carried away with our previous meetings with you, but hopefully with a fresh crop of players that’s not in their mind.
MC: Who are the eleven Accrington players you expect John Coleman to select to start against Sunderland?
JC: We have that many injuries I honestly have no idea what the line-up will be. I honestly cannot do it. Your guess is as good as mine.
Previous lineup vs MK Dons: (4-2-3-1) Savin (GK), Rodgers, Nottingham, Hughes, Burgess, Morgan, Barclay, McConville, Butcher, Smyth, Charles.
MC: Sunderland are unbeaten against Accrington in our four competitive meetings, what is your honest prediction of the final score?
JC: I think we have to go for a win to try and keep pace with the playoff pack.
We’re playing terribly but this side has a magnificent way of surprising you when you least expect it. I expect a good game and I’ll always back us on our day, so I will go for a 3-2 Accrington victory!