Matthew Crichton: Burton currently sit 12th in League One, 12 points away from the playoff positions - are fans still confident that you can make a late run for promotion?
Ed Walker: I would say that the majority of fans, if not all, have accepted that we are playing for position across the rest of this season.
Whilst play-offs are not mathematically out of the question yet, there has been a sense during the campaign that there is a clear gap in quality between ourselves and those top sides.
Particularly on the road, Burton have not laid too much of a glove on any of the promotion and play-off chasers so far.
An aim for a top half finish is realistic however and would be a good achievement for Burton given the size of the club and where they found themselves not too long ago.
MC: Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink has been in charge for over a year now in his second spell with Burton, is he popular amongst the fans and can you see him staying long term this time?
EW: Hasselbaink’s popularity here was cemented after the work he did during his first spell at the club.
Coming back and dragging Burton away from seemingly nailed-on relegation has only enhanced that popularity further.
I get the sense hearing him speak about the club that his intent is to stay longer than the first time around (he’s already surpassed the length of his first spell having been here for more than 12 months now).
A long-term club strategy seems to be in place to make use of young players as profitable assets and both Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Dino Maamria seem committed to getting this club aiming for a return to the Championship in the future.
MC: Sunderland have only won two out of eight matches against Burton and have never beat The Brewers at the Stadium of Light - why do you think you’re such a bogey side for us?
EW: If I knew the answer to this, I’d be a trillionaire!
It’s remarkable that Burton Albion have been able to keep the record they have with Sunderland for so long, especially away at the Stadium of Light.
So much has changed on the pitch at both clubs that I don’t think you can really claim players are still haunted by that first ever meeting here anymore.
What I will say is that the longer we keep meeting in the league, the closer we surely have to be getting to that record coming to an end!
MC: Burton surprised many last week with the signing of ex-Everton striker Oumar Niasse - how did that come about and has he still got it?
EW: It really came out of the blue. One of those Football Manager style signings that catches the eye because of how out there it looks.
Niasse had been with Huddersfield Town last season but didn’t make an appearance because of injury.
He had apparently been training with Burton for a period before signing a deal and Hasselbaink clearly wants to make use of his Premier League experience to help Burton in the backend of his campaign.
Time will tell what he can actually bring. He made his debut off the bench at Ipswich on Saturday and it wasn’t really anything to ring home about (the team performance as a whole wasn’t really something to ring home about if I’m honest!)
MC: Another player Hasslebaink recently signed is former Sunderland left-back Williams Kokolo, how has he got on so far?
EW: Kokolo hasn’t been here long but he’s impressed already.
He offers something at left-wing-back that Burton didn’t really have prior to him signing. He’s a dynamic, front-footed player who wants to take on his man but also seems to have a well-timed tackle in his locker when helping out with defending.
He really fits the mould of the kind of player Burton have looked to bring in over the last few windows. A young player from a higher-ranked academy or youth team who will benefit from consistent game time at a good level and should develop into a profitable asset long term.
I’m excited to see what player he will become by the time he leaves here.
MC: One major blow Burton suffered was losing top scorer Dan Jebbison, a player Sunderland nearly signed, what made Sheffield United recall him given his playtime and form?
EW: Sheffield United as far as I’m aware weren’t really left with a choice.
Losing one striker to injury and having another going out on loan left Heckingbottom needing to recall him in order to act as backup should the starters be unavailable.
His departure was the most painful of the January window as it was the one completely out of Burton’s control. As frustrating as it is to lose a player like that though, we just have to accept it and move on.
Life without Jebbison at Burton was always going to happen anyway post this season, and the club have looked to act as quick as possible to account for losing him.
The permanent signing of Gassan Ahadme from Norwich City and the loan signing of Christian Saydee from AFC Bournemouth leaves us with a newlook frontline but one that clearly does have something to it if used right.
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, who should Sunderland be wary of during the match?
EW: It’s a bit tricky to identify star men at the moment because several of the key players from the first half of the season have since left the club!
Club captain John Brayford is certainly one worth mentioning. He returned on New Year’s Day from a spell out injured and has found a new home at the heart of our back three. Primarily, it allows him to do what he’s always done best, last ditch defending with key blocks and clearances. Following the departure of Tom O’Connor and Daniel Jebbison, and in turn following a brace against Bolton Wanderers last Tuesday, Brayford’s now also our top scorer! He may not be the biggest player around but he can be a serious aerial threat at the back post if set pieces find him.
A big reason for Brayford’s goal scoring exploits is the set piece delivery that Tom Hamer and Joe Powell provide. Hamer currently plays as a physical right-wing-back (though I would say he suits a more defensive role than an attacking role). His long throw-in is treated as a major weapon in Burton’s arsenal and it typically targets either the front post or the edge of the box, with taller players like Sam Hughes and Conor Shaughnessy looking to get flick-ons which take the ball deeper into the box and into the path of oncoming runners. There’s mixed opinions amongst fans about the throw-in, it suits certain opponents far better than others and on plenty of occasions has looked ineffective, but it is a undoubtedly a great way of boxing the opposition within their own third and potentially causing problems with any loose second balls.
Joe Powell is a technical, creative midfielder. Very good at shielding the ball under pressure and distributing forward to players making runs off him, his set piece delivery from corners and free kicks often targets the far post or the centre of the box which plenty of the taller players in this team look to attack with purpose. Burton are a team that don’t have too much in terms of open play threat but if there is any, it normally involves him in some way. He’s the best technical footballer in this Burton side and if we are going to do anything in the final third of this campaign, I fully believe he will be integral towards it.
Another player worth mentioning is Ciaran Gilligan. A product of our own academy, he’s a 20-year-old midfielder who featured a good amount under Jake Buxton last season and has caught the eye again this season under Hasselbaink. His biggest quality is his tenacity. Though he isn’t very large at all in terms of size, he has the relentless fight to compete and win battles against most opponents and impresses with his intelligence when in possession as well. It’s not a guarantee that he’ll play at the Stadium of Light as Hasselbaink has utilised other players in his role, but it speaks volumes about his ability that fans are disappointed when his name isn’t on that team sheet.
MC: What style of play can Alex Neil’s side expect from Hasslebaink’s side and which eleven players do you think he will select?
EW: You should not expect anything that aesthetically pleasing about this Burton side. This is a team that recognises the set piece threat that it has and looks to utilise it at every opportunity. Throw-ins from Hamer and corners and set pieces from Joe Powell will target the penalty area and those coming up from the back.
A big thing I feel we need to develop both now and and in the future is our open play creativity. This isn’t a team that will build through the thirds, the football is mostly direct and looks to get defenders on the backfoot where possible, being forced into situations where they have to lose possession through clearances upfield or clear the ball out of play for set pieces to then be sent into the box. The midfield put a lot of work into picking up second balls in central areas, but it really depends on the opponent as to whether or not they are able to do this successfully. Against Bolton Wanderers last Tuesday, the game plan worked to perfection with a seven minute blitz of set piece goals putting the Brewers well ahead in the first half. Against Ipswich Town four days later, Burton conceded inside 60 seconds and got picked off in the second half.
I’m not sure anyone can tell for certain whether Burton’s game plan is going to prove effective against Sunderland or not. We’ll just have to see...
MC: Burton beat Sunderland 1-0 earlier this season, what is your prediction for the final score this time around?
EW: It’s fair to say that Sunderland are the ones who need this win more, and I think they might get it. Burton’s season is pretty much over now with them playing for position and Sunderland are in need of three points to properly get things going under Alex Neil.
People can point to Burton’s record at the Stadium of Light, but as I said earlier, the longer we keep meeting you in the league then the closer we are getting to that record potentially coming to an end. We had an unbeaten record against Sheffield Wednesday prior to playing them back on the 5th February and that’s now over. Nothing lasts forever.
On top of that, our record away against top half sides is very poor. Burton have played away at eight of the 11 teams currently above them in the table and have just a lone point at Bolton to show for it. Going two goals behind has been the killer for us in both home and away matches over the season, and we’ve conceded the first goal in 10 of our last 13 matches. This team can recover to take a point or even a win if they fall a single goal behind, but if the opposition gets two goals ahead then it is essentially wrapping up the three points for them.
I have a feeling this game could continue the trend. This matters far more to the hosts than it does the visitors at this stage of the season.
Sunderland 2-1 Burton Albion.