Matthew Crichton: Lincoln currently sit eight points from the relegation zone with nine games to go, is it simply a case of securing safety and planning for next season now?
Ben Ward: It absolutely is now, we’ve recovered from a rocky patch and seem to be putting enough points on the board to secure our seat at the table next season.
Everyone has a blip in a good run, and with our recent history being nothing but success, we were due a bad one.
MC: I have seen calls for Michael Appleton’s sacking following the drop in points from last season, would you say the majority of the fanbase is still behind him?
BW: I think so, yeah. As with most things, it’s the vocal minority that are being heard the most on social media.
Nobody would suggest that we’re necessarily happy with the position we’re in right now, but the board have made it clear that Michael Appleton is key to the long term strategy at the club.
I believe a recent poll on one of our social media fan channels actually had over 80% of votes agreeing he was the man for the job, so I think the fans are backing him.
MC: Would you say that the scrapping of the wage cap has been a major factor behind Lincoln’s dip in position this season?
BW: It’s definitely played a huge part. I don’t want to bemoan being a smaller club in a league with some big players, but it definitely helped with having a more level playing field last season.
As soon as the purse strings get loosened, we’ll always struggle to match the likes of yourselves, Ipswich, Portsmouth etc for wages.
I hope it doesn’t come across as bitter when I say that, because most bigger clubs have earned the right to do that, but there are definitely some that spend well beyond their means to attempt to get out of this league and it worries me for the long term future of the lower league game.
MC: Three of Chris Maguire’s five Lincoln goals came against Sunderland earlier this season, how has he performed since his hat-trick at the Stadium of Light?
BW: He’s been a bit hot and cold.
I know I took some stick for my prediction of him ‘coming into his own’ last time out before he bagged a hat-trick, but there’s been some games where he’s been anonymous, in all honesty.
He’s not quite hit the heights of the game at the SoL, and he did get into it with some fans again after our disappointing result against Gillingham. I’m hoping he’s as fired up again this Saturday though!
MC: Another ex-Sunderland player who has barely featured for Lincoln this season is Liam Bridcutt, has Appleton struggled to replace the quality of the ex-Premier League midfielder throughout this season?
BW: Brids’ absence has been a massive hole for us. The entire team plays better when he’s involved, and his experience is invaluable.
It’s the slight danger of basing a team around youth with one or two experienced players, as soon as one of the latter gets injured, your average age drops massively, and people can look a bit lost.
We’ve got quality available to us with the likes of Connor McGrandles and Max Sanders, but with all due respect to them, they’re not quite Liam Bridcutt.
MC: Lincoln’s marquee signing in January was striker John Marquis from Portsmouth, who has already netted five goals - were your fans delighted to see him come through the door?
BW: I’m not a religious man at all, but I’m thanking whatever deity wishes to take credit for John Marquis joining the Imps.
We were absolutely desperate for a striker going into January. Dan N’Lundulu didn’t turn out to be the right fit for us, and with Tom Hopper one of a long list of long term injuries, we were relying on Freddie Draper, a 17 year old academy graduate, to lead the line.
John’s come in and lit the place up. His work rate is phenomenal, and he just “gets it”.
He’s building a strong relationship with the fans, and I think everyone with an LN postcode is hoping we can find room in the budget to offer him a deal he finds acceptable for next season!
MC: During your 2-1 defeat to Rotherham in midweek, Lincoln did not have a goalkeeper on the bench, what is the current situation with your goalkeepers?
BW: In January, we signed Jordan Wright from Forest, to add to our No1 of Josh Griffiths, who’s on loan from West Brom.
It also allowed us to send another academy graduate, Sam Long, on loan to the league of Ireland. Sadly, Josh suffered an injury during the Sheffield Wednesday game, and with Sam’s loan being international, we aren’t able to recall him.
So we’re playing Jordan Wright, and on the hunt for an emergency loan until the end of the season. Mutterings from the club suggest we’re likely to have someone in for next week’s game against Shrewsbury, so no dangerous challenges this weekend please!
MC: Which eleven Lincoln players do you think Appleton will select and what style of play can Sunderland expect to face?
BW: We’ve recently changed things up to a 3-5-2 with wing backs, and it proved a masterstroke against the Owls.
I think we’re likely to see Jordan Wright, Joe Walsh, Adam Jackson and either TJ Eyoma or Regan Poole if the latter is fit, with the teenage wizard Brooke Norton-Cuffy and Cohen Bramall as WB’s.
Connor McGrandles returns from suspension, likely joined in midfield by Lewis Fiorini and Chris Maguire playing just behind Tom Hopper and John Marquis.
As for the style of play, it depends if the Jekyll or Hyde version of Lincoln City show up. We’ve been consistently inconsistent this season, but if the second half against Rotherham is what we’re carrying on from, expect a gutsy, passionate display and some neat football played at a decent pace, likely looking to hit you on the break.
MC: Sunderland won 4-0 during their last visit to Lincoln in League One - what is your prediction for the final score?
BW: I know the Black Cats are looking for blood at the moment to cement the promotion aspirations. It’s going to be an extremely tough game, and if we come away with anything, I’ll be delighted.
Mind you, I said I’d be happy with a point at the Stadium of Light, and look how that one turned out! My head says 2-1 Sunderland, my heart says 2-1 Lincoln.