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Sunderland v Lincoln City - Papa John’s Trophy

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Fan Focus: Lincoln fan Gary is predicting a Sunderland win given Michael Appleton’s injury crisis!

Matthew Crichton caught up with Lincoln fan Gary Hutchinson of The Stacey West ahead of our next game to discuss the factors behind their recent downturn in form, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from Appleton’s Imps...

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

MC: Lincoln have won just two of their last 11 matches in all competitions and have fallen out of the automatic promotion places - what has caused such a dramatic downturn in form?

GH: Injuries have played a huge part. We lost captain Liam Bridcutt for much of February, Jorge Grant has gone now until the end of April and Joe Walsh, our best central defender, picked up a long one too.

Going into Hull away we were 100% on for the top two, we drew there and looked comfortable in doing so. Sadly, losing such key players will always have an affect on a squad of just 22 senior professionals, and we’ve seen that.

The situation has since got worse too, and we’re now without our number nine, leaving us with one recognised striker who has himself been out for five months and only just come back.

MC: Despite this, manager Micheal Appleton signed a new four-year contract extension - how did that go down with fans given your decline in form?

GH: The reason for the decline is accepted, and fans understand what a wonderful job Michael has done. I wouldn’t say he is universally popular, there is always one or two with something pointless to say negatively, but 99.9% of our fans are behind him.

He’s brought together a squad capable of challenging you, Portsmouth, Hull and Ipswich for a place in the Championship, and on our budget that shouldn’t be possible. He’s done it playing lovely football and whatever happens between now and the end of the season, we know this journey is set to go on and on.

MC: Given that Ipswich, Portsmouth, and Charlton have all appointed new managers, are you concerned at all for your playoff position or do you believe Appleton can turn your form back around?

GH: I’m concerned, 100%. It’s tough, because all of these questions are looking at the loss of form as something within the players, tactics or management, but it really isn’t the case.

Yes, one or two have tailed off, Lewis Montsma has struggled in recent weeks and James Jones hasn’t come back from his Covid plight the same player, but there is little the manager can do.

He doesn’t have the options on the bench to make massive changes, we can’t call on a second or third striker if the goals don’t flow, because we don’t have one. I hear the term ‘bare bones’ used plenty, but when you go into a cup semi-final with four outfield players on the bench, you know it’s a dire situation.

Sadly, my gut instinct is we’ll finish eighth this season, I think the next 11 games are just a bridge too far for this talented, but threadbare squad.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Papa John’s Trophy
Michael Appleton was the favourite to become Sunderland manager at one point before Jack Ross in 2018.
Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

MC: A key factor in your poor form has to be the injury suffered to star man Jorge Grant, just how big a loss has he been to Lincoln?

GH: I apologise for seemingly repeating myself, but he has been a massive loss. I did think we’d be okay without him, but we’ve lacked a creative spark, certainly against Gillingham in midweek.

That was a stupid defeat, we gifted them two goals and then they did what they do, lump it in the air and shut up shop. If we’d had Grant on the field, he might have found that spark, that moment of brilliance to lay something on for someone.

What I would say is Morgan Rogers and Brennan Johnson can both do that too; the former has been strong since signing in January. We missed Grant when Bridcutt was also out, as we just didn’t have a player capable of playing in front of the defence, and it showed up our defensive frailties.

MC: On a more positive note, Lincoln will have captain Liam Bridcutt back from injury, do you think he can help steady the ship?

GH: To a degree, yes, but it is a bit like plugging a dam leaking in ten places – there’s only so much he can do. If we do have one recognised central defender, as reports suggest, then sadly he will be fighting against the tide.

Who wants to face a 27-goal striker with one fit defender on the middle who has played right-back all season? Nobody. Yes, Liam Bridcutt is a huge player to get back, but for the form to turn around we need three or four more fit and indications are that isn’t going to happen.

MC: Looking at Lincoln’s team, it seems the two danger men will be on-loan duo Brennan Johnson and Morgan Rogers, who both possess brilliant pace - are they your main hope of coming away with a victory?

GH: Them and Callum Morton, who has looked lively since coming back. Of the three, Morgan Rogers is the player likely to turn the game, he’s been really exciting to watch but hasn’t gripped fans as much as he should because his good form coincides with our drop off.

I also think Conor McGrandles is a big player and he’s chipped in with a few goals too. Often, the spark comes from those you least expect and the hard-working Scot is one I think might give us a little spark of hope, but genuinely that is all I feel we have.

Lincoln City v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One
Liam Bridcutt joined Sunderland from Brighton under Gus Poyet, making 30 Premier League appearances.
Photo by Andrew Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

MC: Sunderland have defeated Lincoln twice already this season (once on penalties), do you think that will give Lee Johnson’s side the psychological advantage going into the fixture?

GH: I’ll take the penalties outcome as a draw, if it’s all the same! Seriously though, I felt we did well at your place in the cup and penalties can go either way – we did the same to Hull but won that fixture on spot kicks.

I’m not sure there is a huge psychological advantage if I’m honest, maybe if you’d done us 4-0 twice, I could see it, but we gave a good account of ourselves in the semi-final, right up until that one spot kick.

The real advantage is form, you are winning games with ease and we can’t buy three points right now. Therein lies the reason I feel you must be firm favourites.

MC: Which eleven Lincoln players do you believe Appleton will select and what style of play can Sunderland expect to encounter?

GH: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’ve heard we have Montsma and Jackson not training this week, which adds to Hopper, Anderson, Grant, Sanders, and Walsh who are all also injured.

If that’s the case, then it might be Palmer in goal, Poole and Edun at full-back, Eyoma and 18-year-old Sean Roughan at centre back with Bridcutt in front. James Jones and McGrandles would be the two more attacking midfielder, possibly with Johnson, Rogers and Morton up top.

Michael might go 4-4-2, he did against Gillingham and despite the stupid goals we didn’t look that bad. If he does that, maybe Anthony Scully starts up top with Morton, he’s scored more from open play than anyone this season, and the out of form Jones stays on the bench.

Whatever we play, we’ll look to keep you out of our defensive third when you’re in possession and I imagine we will look to attack quickly on the break. We’re good with the ball and decent without it, when we’re at full strength. Away to the big clubs we tend to have around 40% possession and create our chances with fast counter-attacks.

MC: Lastly, what is your honest prediction of the final score on Saturday? Will it be third time lucky for Lincoln?

GH: No. You’ll win 2-0 if we’re lucky, but depending on injuries it could be more. I just hope we fight hard, defend better than we did on Tuesday (which shouldn’t be difficult) and don’t let the game get away from us in the first half hour, as we seem to do far too often these days.

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