MC: Oxford were bottom of League One after eight matches, but you now find yourselves in eighth, just one point from the playoffs - what caused that early-season crisis?
GD: That was a start that looks like proving costly. Imagine where even the most average of starts could have put us now!
I was very keen to say that I hadn’t sensed a hangover from the play-off disappointment, but the results said otherwise. The defeat to Wycombe was a crushing blow, not only because we were so close to promotion but because the victory was there for us. Mentally, that must have had an impact. Combine that with a shorter break between seasons than other sides and maybe a slow start was more inevitable than I wanted to accept.
We didn’t get anything quite right early on. I’m not saying we hadn’t got the right pegs in the right holes, but if I tell you our starting right-back now plays as a box-to-box midfielder for Burton, you’ll get the picture.
MC: After winning seven in a row in mid-season, Oxford’s form has been less consistent of late - are you confident The Yellows can make the playoffs once again?
GD: After the miserable start to the campaign, I’m just relieved that this team have managed to fight their way back into the equation. Our defeat to Northampton - in which we were miles off the level required - shows that games against lower positioned sides are not to be taken lightly, but after Friday we have a favourable run until the end of the season.
Beating the lower sides was how we got back into the play-off picture and if we are to get there again, we would need a similarly impressive run. Players are slowly coming back to fitness and last week’s win over Lincoln was a timely boost, but I would take having a chance of the play-offs on the final day.
MC: Oxford manager Karl Robinson has been frequently linked with other jobs away from the Kassam Stadium, is the fanbase concerned that if you do not achieve promotion he could go elsewhere?
GD: I thought his reaction to speculation linking him to the Birmingham job was telling. A sceptic may say that he knew his mate Lee Bowyer was getting the job and he didn’t want to rock the boat, but he spoke very positively about the future at Oxford.
A few days later we began to read of a potential takeover involving current board members, who boast previous ownership of Inter Milan among their credentials. Robinson’s talk of Oxford as a ‘top-30’ side suddenly made more sense. Takeovers can go either way, but the fact that the manager can already talk to those involved and has clearly got wind of the direction the club wants to go in would seem to put us in a good position.
I think Karl Robinson has done a fantastic job at changing the entire culture of Oxford United and I think his ultimate satisfaction would be Championship football with this club. Hopefully he feels the same way.
MC: Sunderland manager Lee Johnson famously signed then Bristol Rovers striker Matty Taylor for Bristol City, a move which did not work, is he the main man Sunderland need to be wary of, given his excellent goal-scoring record in League One?
GD: My Bristol City supporting friend has referred to this assessment as “very harsh”. I suspect he decided the move worked the moment Bristol Rovers fans found out about it, but I get both sides of the argument!
Either way, Matty’s return to Oxford was very welcome. We all knew he felt that he had unfinished business here and nobody is turning down the chance to have a homegrown natural goalscorer in the side. Taylor actually went 12 league games without a goal recently, but 3 goals in the last 4 games has put him back on track.
What I would say is that strikers are only as good as their supply line, so while Taylor is the most likely to put the ball in the net, one of Brandon Barker and the recently fit James Henry would seem the most likely to give it to him.
MC: 23-year-old Jack Stevens appears to have clinched the goalkeeping spot away from the usual first-choice in Simon Eastwood this season, achieving 11 clean sheets in the process - is he an emerging talent?
GD: It had been a long wait in the wings for Jack Stevens and he has certainly made an impact since getting his opportunity. Simon Eastwood was dropped after a horrible error saw a rare defeat in the derby, but the one and only positive to come from that day was Stevens coming into the side and our form taking off at last.
This is the first prolonged run of league football he has ever had and his improvements are noticeable week on week. Penalty saves against Charlton (last kick of the game) and in the revenge win over Swindon (with the score at 1-0) have certainly caught people’s attention, but his steady progress in both confidence and performance have impressed me.
He’s willing to take more risks with his passing than Eastwood, which may get him some criticism from those who will forever be risk-averse when it comes to keepers, but his shot-stopping has been the stand-out quality. He’s also quick off his line, which makes him a modern goalkeeper.
He is only 23-years-old so his potential really is exciting as he’s still a baby in goalkeeper terms. I am relieved that he is contracted until 2024, put it that way.
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned Taylor, who are the Oxford who you are backing to cause Sunderland problems?
GD: Brandon Barker is a fascinating footballer. When he arrived on loan from Rangers he wouldn’t head the ball in a 50-50 and he definitely wouldn’t try to tackle anybody, but his ability against an isolated full-back was terrifying. All credit must go to Barker and the coaching staff in that he is now doing the dirty side of the game as well. He still won’t be winning many back-post headers, but he is certainly working both ways now.
As far as natural ability goes, he is sensational. You can see why he was supposed to be the pick of the bunch at Manchester City as a kid, but you can also see why it hasn’t clicked for him anywhere at the age of 24. He frustrates because he can look a match winner and a bit lost within a 10-minute spell of football, but I’d give anything to have him on a permanent basis. He’s an asset you could develop and if he ever gets it all together, his ceiling is upper-Championship at the very least.
With all of that said, it is not impossible that he’s on the bench on Friday. The keep it tight and win it off the bench plan went horribly at Northampton, but it might not be the worst shout up at Sunderland.
Another name who will play is Cameron Brannagan who has fought back from a potentially career-threatening eye problem earlier in the season to look like his old self. He is providing much needed energy in midfield and if I say that he’s due a goal, maybe fate will act on our behalf.
MC: Former Oxford fan-favorite Chris Maguire has started just one league match under Lee Johnson, are you surprised to see he is out of favour?
GD: I can’t say that I have seen the current form of Chris Maguire play recently and at the age of 32, I don’t know if he’s the Chris Maguire we knew and loved. However, if he’s anything like that loveable nuisance still, I’d pay to watch him start for my team any day of the week.
It’ll never be forgotten that a slightly overweight Chris Maguire strolled around the County Ground and reduced the Swindon captain to tears, so don’t expect a bad word about him from me.
What I would say is that your form is more than decent and if the players who have the shirt at the moment are getting results then leaving him out is understandable.
MC: Who are the eleven Oxford players you believe Karl Robinson will select and what style of play can Sunderland expect to encounter?
GD: I’ve done a few of these for you now and I don’t think I’ve ever got it right! The manager is a tough man to read and for away games against good opponents he is known to do something a little out of the ordinary. Add in injury doubts and I’ve got no chance.
I don’t think Sunderland-supporting-yet-Oxfordshire-born-and-bred right-back Sam Long will be fit to play, which has been a loss in recent weeks. Josh Ruffels was injured in the win over Lincoln and we really need him to make it as our main senior left-back.
(4-3-3) Stevens - Hanson, Moore, Atkinson, Ruffels (or possibly Simon Grayson’s son Joe if he doesn’t make it) - Gorrin, Brannagan, Henry - Sykes, Taylor, Barker.
MC: Sunderland beat Oxford 2-0 earlier this season at the Kassam Stadium, what is your honest prediction of the final score this time around?
GD: That was one of the few occasions where we were comprehensively outplayed this season, so anything better than that would be nice.
You don’t need telling that Sunderland are flying and all logic points towards a home win, but we haven’t had a decent away scalp this season and this is our last real opportunity.
I’d take a point and think we can start fast, but I think we may lose by a goal.