Matthew Crichton: Oxford have lost their last two matches against Morecambe and Plymouth, are you worried that your side could be losing form at the worst time?
Jack Shoemark: Losing back-to-back league matches at this stage of the season is never good but with the way the playoff race is shaping up in League One this year, it could be the deciding factor on whether we make the playoffs or not.
The most frustrating thing about both defeats was that we had enough chances to win each game as well as a couple of bits of luck going against us. At Plymouth, their keeper Mike Cooper got man of the match whilst Plymouth scored from their only shot on target.
In the Morecambe game, we took an early lead and then missed a couple of opportunities to go further ahead whilst Morecambe scored from two of their three shots on target to be leading at half-time.
The second half saw us create several good chances with former Black Cat Trevor Carson keeping us out including one world-class save in the dying stages of the game.
Perhaps it’s the reverse of earlier in the season when things went our way, and you just have to shrug your shoulders and say, “that’s football” and move on to the next one. It certainly makes the game v Sunderland an even bigger one than might have been expected.
MC: On a more positive note, the club have only lost 3 matches at home this season, what makes the Kassam such a fortress?
JS: Under Karl Robinson, our home form is right up there with the best we’ve ever had at the current stadium.
Everyone who has visited will know it’s only 3 sided and is generally not the greatest experience - it certainly wouldn’t feature on my away day list if I was an opposition fan! But partly down to KR’s style of play, it has made us hard to beat, teams generally need to score goals at our place to come away with the victory as can be seen by the scorelines in the home defeats (Plymouth 1-3, Wigan 2-3 and Bolton 2-3).
I’m led to believe that the pitch is one of the biggest in League One which some teams seem to struggle with in terms of their own defensive shape, especially if they intend to come and “park the bus”.
Success on the pitch brings increased attendances with Saturday’s game a sell-out and it will be the 6th crowd of 10,000+ this season which is the best since we moved to the current stadium in 2001.
It’s likely that this season’s average attendance will be the highest in the current stadium also. The increased attendances is coming at the right time as there is a new stadium project in the pipeline with the commercials being discussed with Oxfordshire County Council currently and an initial target of 2026 for completion.
MC: In terms of style, Oxford have scored the most in the league, but have also conceded the second most in the top half - how would you describe your style of play?
JS: As the goal figures suggest, attack is the best form of defence, only Fulham have scored more goals in the whole of the EFL and our 41 matches so far this season have seen 127 goals.
Like Sunderland, we’ve had 24 games with over 2.5 goals, 16 of these going to over 3.5 goals, and 9 going to over 4.5 goals.
There aren’t too many defensively minded players in the squad, especially since former Sunderland man Alex Gorrin was ruled out of the season in November.
This is epitomised by KR playing natural winger Ryan Williams as a full-back/wing-back in recent weeks, whilst 8 goal Mark Sykes has also been utilised as a wing-back this season.
The attacking choices amongst the squad are vast with the aforementioned Williams and Sykes joined by Billy Bodin, Marcus Browne, James Henry, Nathan Holland, Marcus McGuane and Gavin Whyte as forward-thinking midfielders or widemen.
Despite scoring 75 goals so far, we’ve missed a huge number of chances across the season and that figure could and should probably be in the mid 80s.
Being a forward thinking side means that issues can be had at the back, though having 18 different combinations of defence in 41 matches due to injury/illness perhaps goes some way to explaining the high total in the against column.
MC: Karl Robinson has been in charge of Oxford for over four years now, what gives fans so much faith that he is the man to take you to the Championship?
JS: It has certainly been a work in progress project with Robinson steering us away from the relegation zone in the latter stages of the 17/18 season before achieving 12th place in his first full season in 2018/19.
Two back to back play-off campaigns have followed and until recently, we looked on course to achieve a third play-off campaign in a row.
His style of play alongside his (and the recruitment team’s) ability to attract players to the club are big reasons why he is generally considered in a positive light by Oxford fans.
He isn’t the perfect manager by any stretch of the imagination and there are gaps/flaws in the current squad that will be easy to pick at if we do not have a successful season.
Having said that, we are a club very much in transition with a pending boardroom shuffle seeing some very wealthy board members get overall control, the stadium project starting to move forward and a general feeling of optimism and positivity about what lies ahead.
Off the pitch, he is a fantastic bloke with an ambassador role at Helen & Douglas House, a local charity that seeks to support families with terminally ill children. He recently ran a half marathon for the Prost8 charity whilst alongside his wife, is a big advocate of mental health awareness and support.
His handling of the big losses to the OUFC community - Jim Smith, Micky Lewis, Joey Beauchamp as well as a number of supporters - in the last few years has been fantastic, taking time out to meet their relatives, attend funerals and ensuring the playing squad understood the magnitude of each person to the football club.
MC: With 20 League One goals this season, Matty Taylor is just two behind Ross Stewart - what makes him so clinical at this level?
JS: Taylor has the ability to be where the ball is going to go or where the ball ends up, something that makes him a natural goalscorer for this level.
Manu of his goals are from inside the penalty box, getting on to crosses and loose balls but he is also pretty reliable when played through on goal one on one.
As a team, we tend to create so many chances, that you know Taylor is likely to have an opportunity to score most weeks when on the pitch.
Matty is also an Oxford boy and despite being released as a young lad, worked his way back through the tiers, returning to the club on loan in 2019, he knows what it means to put on a yellow shirt and this gives him the extra drive when out on the pitch.
The signing of Sam Baldock as a free agent just after the transfer window was shown to be a masterstroke with him and Taylor immediately forging a good understanding, though Baldock has missed the last four games with injury and is set to be out for a couple of more weeks.
MC: Aside from Taylor, which Oxford players should Sunderland be wary of during the match?
JS: Cameron Brannagan is set to return from concussion protocols after missing Plymouth & Morecambe.
He has 13 goals from midfield this season (including a record 4 penalties in one game v Gillingham) which is more than he had scored in the league from the 3.5 seasons prior. He adds some grit and determination in midfield and will often be the one rallying the troops, something that was perhaps missing in the last two games.
Mark Sykes is another player who has added goals to his game, having scored 2 goals in 69 games before this season, he has 8 from 36 so far and this led to his first call-up to the Republic of Ireland squad in the most recent international break.
Luke McNally at centre back has had a great breakthrough season. Signed in January 2021 from St Patrick’s Athletic, he has played more than expected this season and some stellar performances have seen links with Tottenham emerge over the last few days. He has also shown his ability at the other end of the pitch with 4 goals from 25 appearances.
Gavin Whyte has 8 assists but has struggled in front of goal, with just 1 so far, Saturday would be a great time to add another.
MC: It seems like it is between Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe, Sunderland and Oxford for the final two playoff spots - who are you backing?
JS: There are some tough fixtures for all four sides, with sides having to play each other, and points certain to be dropped at some stage.
Despite Sheff Weds and Sunderland having a game in hand, this doesn’t fall until the final week of the season, so the pressure could really be on at that point in time.
Wycombe know this league very well and have the ability to grind out a result where required, whilst expectation at Hillsborough and the Stadium of Light is massive though both sides are definitely on a roll at the moment.
It’s the reaction to the poor results that will be crucial in the playoff race. We are the least in-form side of the four and have suddenly found ourselves back in the “chasers” role but this is almost exactly the same scenario last season, where we claimed a play-off spot on the final day of the season.
It could well be a similar outcome this time around, though I’m not sure myself and the other T’Manor Podcast (@t_manorpodcast) boys will be able to take constantly flicking between scores again on 30th April!
MC: Which 11 players do you think Robinson will select against Sunderland?
JS: Cameron Brannagan and Elliott Moore are back so I would expect both to go straight into the side though what shape we play is anyone’s guess.
I’d also expect a couple of changes further up the pitch following two long away trips in the last week. I’ll go for a 4-3-3 system:
Jack Stevens, Sam Long, Elliott Moore, Luke McNally, Ciaron Brown, Herbie Kane, Cameron Brannagan, James Henry, Mark Sykes, Matty Taylor, Nathan Holland.
MC: Sunderland are unbeaten in four matches against Oxford, what is your prediction for the final score?
JS: I expect a good game with both sides going for the three points, with a victory for either side potentially taking them as high as 5th.
We’re due a home league win against Sunderland, with the last one coming in December 1991, so I’m going to back us to win by the odd goal in a high scoring game.