How are you all feeling - are we feeling refreshed? Excited? Hopeful?
I’m about as refreshed, excited and hopeful as can be about the potential of watching Sunderland take on Shrewsbury in League One, but it is a bank holiday after all - it could be worse, right... we could all be at work, stuck to our desk, wishing the day away.
No - in fact, it’s Easter time, and this Good Friday could turn out to be a truly outstanding one if we manage to get another three points this afternoon, hopefully ramping up the pressure on Plymouth, Wycombe, Sheffield Wednesday and Oxford in the process.
There’s no time now for beating around the bush or making excuses - when you look at our remaining fixtures, this is one that we simply have to win. Nothing else will do.
Steve Cotterill (remember him? He’s the fella with the notepad that followed Howard Wilkinson around like a lost puppy all those years ago) brings his side north having well and truly secured their status as a League One side for at least another season - they’re sat slap-bang in the middle of the table, clear of danger and with nothing to play for but pride.
Here’s hoping that their lot have one eye on their all-inclusive holidays to Salou in a fortnight or so’s time - I’m sure they’ll arrive with good intentions, but their desire to scrap and claw for a point or three, on this occasion, should not be matched by ours if we are truly in the right frame of mind and ready to do whatever it takes to win.
Since adding former Sunderland stalwart Tom Flanagan to their ranks, the Shrews have improved their defensive displays and have picked up some decent wins since the turn of the year - most notably, a 3-0 away victory over then leaders Rotherham United last month.
And the Northern Irish defender is expected to start today against his old side - something he discussed at length with Shrewsbury’s official website:
“It’s just another game, to be honest. It’s one of them where I’ve cut ties really, I still speak to the players because I was there for a long time but it’s all changed there so yeah, I’m just seeing it as another game really; we’ve got our goal and they’ve got their goal but we’ve just got to concentrate on where we want to be and we can put ourselves in a really good position. I know some people say we’re not playing for anything but we’ve got a goal we’re trying to achieve and it is definitely achievable and a win away from home will back up that good performance against Ipswich.”
“It’s a tough place to go but it will also – and I’ve seen it happen – it will bring out the best in opposition players if they can not play like the occasion but just enjoy their time there. One thing I would definitely say about the fans is that there will probably be somewhere around 30,000-35,000 which is incredible really. I was there during some bad runs and some great runs and the support never dipped below that 30,000 mark which is incredible. You want to play in front of crowds like that and if you can get to a league where that is the standard every week, then you’re doing well for yourself.
“I know the players individually because no one came in after I left so I’ve got that insight, but it’s the consistency so we don’t know what they’re going to bring and I don’t know the manager at all, I’ve never met him. I might’ve played against his sides one or two times but in that respect, I’ve got no idea what they do. I know he’s got the backing from the lads, he’s got the team on his side which I think is a big thing. I think that will help with the situation they’re in where they have to win every game.”
Just a cursory glance at their recent results and statistics should tell you all about what Sunderland can expect from them later today - they don’t see much of the ball, they don’t create many chances, but they do work very hard - they’re organised.
Thankfully, we have plenty of recent experience of playing (and defeating) teams like that at the Stadium of Light - unfashionable but important wins over Fleetwood, Crewe and Gillingham in the last month or so saw us find a way to break down sides who only came to sit back and waste time, and that should offer us a crumb of hope that we’ve got what it takes to grab the victory today, even if they come to spoil the game.
In the last few weeks, it has been Alex Neil’s substitutes that have made the greatest impact from the bench, so it will be interesting to see what kind of side he selects from the start today.
It’s expected that he’ll choose a positive-looking line-up, with plenty of quality attacking options to choose from as his squad edges closer and closer to full fitness.
Whilst Leon Dajaku will certainly miss out due to illness, there’s an outside chance that Alex Pritchard could be in the team - Neil pointed out in yesterday’s pre-match press conference that the former Spurs attacker is “making good progress”, suggesting he could well feature.
The interesting thing will be in who he starts in defence - will he go back to the more traditional back four that we’ve mostly used at home under Alex Neil, or will he stick with a back three? And, if so, will that contain more traditional central defenders, or will he stick by Carl Winchester and Dennis Cirkin?
Jay Matete played an important part in Sunderland’s winner at Oxford last week, but will he start, or will Neil go with the more experienced option in Luke O’Nien? Or, could he go totally left field and throw Dan Neil in for the first time in forever?
Elliot Embleton could well start also, given his impact from the bench in recent games.
Whatever the case may be, there can be absolutely no excuses - the pressure is on, and we have to win. If we do, it sets us up perfectly for an even tastier affair in front of the Sky cameras away at Plymouth Argyle on Monday.