Sunderland face Rochdale at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, as the Black Cats look to close the gap on second-placed Hull in League One. Lee Johnson’s men currently sit fourth, just five away from the promotion spots, whilst Brian Barry-Murphy’s side are 23rd, two points from safety.
Rochdale have never beaten Sunderland in a competitive fixture, losing four out of the five competitive meetings. However, the two sides did draw 2-2 back in October, with Charlie Wyke and Bailey Wright scoring for the Black Cats.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Rochdale fan and OverTheBar editor David Pearson, to discuss if he believes his club can avoid relegation to League Two, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect from the match.
MC: Rochdale manager Brian Barry-Murphy is known for his more attractive style of passing football, but it does not always bring results - is he still popular amongst fans or are they starting to turn?
DP: When Brian Barry-Murphy first took over some of the football was great to watch and during the 2019-20 season we had many plaudits for some of the football we were playing. Unfortunately, that seems to have gone out of the window this season. Now it’s just a case of having plenty of possession and doing nothing with it, except for backward and sideways passing with no end product.
There is a large chunk of the support which have turned on the manager, and I think this would have happened a lot sooner if it wasn’t for the fact that Barry-Murphy is a very likeable person and everybody has been desperate for him to succeed. If fans were allowed in the stadium I do feel like that the turn against him would have happened a lot sooner.
MC: The club have won the least matches in League One this season with six and have won just one of their last 15 matches - what are the factors causing such an awful run of form?
DP: I don’t want to sound like I’m just bashing the manager but a lot of it is down to a lack of a Plan B when Plan A clearly isn’t working. Our home record speaks for itself. We’ve only won one home game all season and there doesn’t seem to be a change in how we approach games. At the start of the new year, we went through a period where we were involved in games with a glut of goals at both ends of the pitch. But after trying to make things tighter at the back we have lost the ability to score. We go into the game with Sunderland having not scored for five consecutive games and we don’t even look like scoring.
I don’t think all of it can be put down to the manager though. We’ve been quite unfortunate with injuries for the majority of the season and it’s been rare we’ve had our first choice eleven available. When we’ve been close to having a full squad, we’ve had some good results, most notably the big away wins at Plymouth and Wigan.
MC: Rochdale are currently just two points from safety, are you confident the club can avoid relegation to League Two?
DP: At the moment I’m not feeling overly confident that we can escape the drop this season. We’ve had a few seasons now where we’ve been close to going down but managed to survive. Ultimately, I think the luck will finally run out this season.
We just can’t seem to string any positive results together and teams around us have started to pick up their form. I’m hoping we see a change of approach in terms of personnel and tactics and we can start picking up some wins over the next few weeks.
MC: Dale midfielder Matty Lund has scored 11 League One this season, is he the main man Sunderland need to keep quiet?
DP: Unfortunately Matty Lund won’t be playing on Saturday. He got quite a nasty ankle injury against Plymouth a couple of weeks ago and will be put for a few more weeks yet. He is a big miss for us but hopefully somebody steps up in his absence.
MC: Rochdale’s 18-year-old striker Kwadwo Baah has signed a pre-contract agreement to join Manchester City in the summer - just how good is he?
DP: Baah has the potential to go far in the game. He is a very talented attacking player, but his talent is still very raw and he still has a lot of his game that he needs to develop, but hopefully his exposure to League One football and his inevitable move up the football pyramid stand him in good stead for the future.
In terms of the game on Saturday, he has the ability to be a match-winner but he seems to be suffering as much as anybody with the poor run we are on. He has been in and out of the team during the season as the manager is keen to protect him, but his quality is something we need to see every week at the moment.
MC: Paul McShane is often viewed as one of Sunderland worst permanent Premier League central defensive signings - do you think he can keep Charlie Wyke quiet?
DP: McShane has been solid for us since joining the club and his presence and experience in the defence definitely does help what is a very young squad. It’s not a given he will play on Saturday as he is struggling to play multiple games a week in the latter parts of his career but because of injuries and suspensions, if he’s fit he will likely play. He has the ability to keep Wyke quiet, but my concern is the defence around him which seems to make a lot of errors at the moment.
MC: Two McLaughlins, two right-backs, two Northern Irish internationals, is it very rare you see two brothers compete against one another in professional football, but is Conor’s brother Ryan any good?
DP: There isn’t many brother vs brother matches is there? In recent years I can only think of Rio and Anton Ferdinand on a few occasions and the two Pogbas in the Europa League a few years back.
Ryan is a very solid right back when he plays and gets forward well and can put a good ball in. Sadly, he’s plagued by injury so he doesn’t get a long run in the side before picking up a knock and he’s out of the side for a few weeks. It’s a shame really as I think he could be a key player for us if he could overcome his injury issues.
MC: Who are the eleven Rochdale players you believe Brian Barry-Murphy will select and what style of play can Lee Johnson’s men expect to encounter?
DP: It’s a tough question to answer in honesty. With all the injuries and suspensions we have at the moment there’s a lot of square pegs in round holes. If I was to hazard a guess I’d go for Bazunu in goal. A back four of McLaughlin, Osho, McShane, and Keohane. In midfield Morley, O’Connell, and Grant. Upfront it will likely be Newby, Humphrys, and Baah. Some people may be shocked to see O’Connell in midfield but he started there against Hull to add a bit of physicality with some key players missing who would perform that role.
In terms of tactics, don’t expect anything spectacular. We like to keep possession and try and work the ball through to the forward line. There will be a lot of sideways and backwards passing and they will be patient in their approach. It hasn’t been working at all as of late, so let’s hope that Saturday brings us a surprise or two.
MC: The two sides drew 2-2 at the Spotland Stadium back in October, what is your honest prediction of the final score at the Stadium of Light on Saturday?
DP: I think from my previous answers, you’d be shocked if I was predicting anything other than a Sunderland win. Lee Johnson seems to have got you guys playing well at present and has really settled into the massive job he has up there.
I think for Rochdale to have any chance, Sunderland will need to have an off day and we change our approach to games. I’m going to go with 2-0 Sunderland. Hopefully I’m wrong and we finally turn our season around starting on Saturday.