Matthew Crichton: Tony Mowbray has been announced as Sunderland’s new manager - what are your thoughts on that appointment?
Will Daniels: It’s an interesting one! I think I’m as shocked as anyone that Alex Neil has left the club for Stoke. Whilst I know that it might be a shorter commute for Neil, the trajectory of Stoke and Sunderland couldn’t be further apart at the moment.
I assume the decision is based on the recruitment that Sunderland have or have not done in the window, but for me you look stronger on paper than the team that was promoted through the playoffs.
Mowbray feels like a decent short-term solution. He knows the area, he’s managed clubs with a similar fan base and expectation before, there is not much he hasn’t seen in EFL management.
Working with Stuart Harvey at Blackburn will have helped his case! His teams have fallen away towards the end of the season for the last couple of years in the Champ, so for me maybe not a manager that can get you out of the league, but to build a foundation for success for someone else to kick on, absolutely, a decent move.
MC: Despite being tipped for relegation by many, Rotherham have started the season unbeaten, how would you summarise your campaign so far?
WD: We’re tipped for relegation every year, so nothing is new there! We didn’t end the season particularly well last season but to finish a campaign on 90 points shows what an exceptional side we were overall to get promoted, in what was the best League One ever known.
We’ve come into this season with a fresh spring in our step. There seems to be a real change in mentality - in previous seasons I’d see a team overcome with fear of the big occasions. This team seems to embrace it, they’re hardened by their experiences in previous campaigns and want to put the record straight this time around. Statistically, this is our equal best start to a second-tier season in the club's history.
Everyone’s buzzing with the start, hopefully our good form can continue this evening.
MC: Paul Warne’s side have only conceded twice, the second-best defensive record in the league, what is it about your system that makes your team so resilient defensively?
WD: The squad has great cohesion. We know what we’re about out of possession, relentless in our press, making the pitch much smaller and forcing teams to play wide. I think the experience added into the back line, which I’ll allude to further on in the piece, is a big help for us, in helping us to be organised and manage games effectively.
We’ve been on the end of some positive variance, we’ve conceded the fourth highest xG in the Champ so far (6.15), conceding two, and against better opposition, we’ll concede a few. We’ve been helped out by a wonderful start to the season by solid Swede Viktor Johansson, too, who’s prevented 1.8 goals so far this season.
Finally, I think the move to five subs really helps a team like Rotherham. We’ve assembled such an athletic group who put so much energy into their performances, I think being able to rotate nearly half the team during the game allows us to manage workload and in turn helps with player concentration.
MC: Sunderland struggled in both fixtures against Rotherham last season, do you think that will give your players the psychological edge?
WD: Sort of. We certainly had your number last season, smashing you at home and probably deserving all three but for a flukey own goal.
That said, this is the start of a new era for the Mackems. You lot will give Mowbray the welcome he needs and I’m sure the players will want to write the wrongs of last season. The Stadium of Light is one of the toughest away days on the fixture calendar and I have no doubt the lads won’t be taking the game lightly.
MC: In terms of recruitment, Warne lost key players Michael Smith and Michael Ihiekwe both to Sheffield Wednesday, were you surprised to see them both leave?
WD: Yes and no. Both were excellent servants for the club and gave us all as fans some wonderful memories. They left because they were offered a humongous pay rise in comparison to what we could offer, and they were entitled to take that offer.
Some would say that you can’t sign for Wednesday from Rotherham, or Newcastle from Sunderland. I’m sure the lads lost a lot of respect for that. Equally, it’s a short career, and they have to maximise their earning potential.
I have no issues with it. In actual fact, I think our style of play has evolved without Michael Smith up top, as we’re looking to play more football, and I think we’re better defensively now than we’ve ever been.
Sometimes these things happen in football and in the end, it’s worked out well for all parties in the end.
MC: Rotherham have signed ten players so far this summer, which of your new recruits have impressed you the most?
WD: We needed Championship experience, and Grant Hall and Lee Peltier have 450 appearances between them. That really helps us from a game management point of view, an area of opportunity in previous campaigns.
Undoubtedly, our best bit of business from this transfer window will be Cameron Humphreys. Heralding from a Man City academy and playing with the likes of Jadon Sancho, Humphreys went out to Belgium to ply his trade before returning back to the UK this summer. This guy is a Rolls Royce of a defender, strong positionally, good enough technically to step out and pick a pass, good in recovery. He picked up an injury on Saturday which looks to keep him out of this one, and a few more beyond that. But he will be a Premier League centre back in three years, of that I am sure.
We always look for athleticism at wing back and we’ve signed the quickest player I’ve ever seen live in Cohen Bramall. On the other side, Brooke Norton Cuffy is an Under 19’s Euros winner, courted as one of Arsenal’s brightest prospects.
Most importantly though, touchwood, we’re going to have kept the players that have got us back to the Championship. For me, that’s as good as any business we could have done.
We may possibly need another striker and I suspect that will be assessed and we’ll act accordingly in Jan. But overall, we’ve had a wonderful window and I’m very confident in the players we’ve fetched in making the difference this season.
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, which Rotherham players do you think can cause Sunderland problems?
WD: The wing back battle will be key to the game. If Jack Clarke starts tonight, he’ll have to keep Norton Cuffy at bay, a player happy to go down the line or come inside, and has pace to burn.
Dan Barlaser has the joint most assists in the Champ thus far with four to his name. His set piece/dead ball delivery will be an issue for the Mackems. The game carries extra incentive for Dan, a player who is a huge Newcastle fan.
How can I leave this section without mentioning our top marksman and prize asset, Chiedozie Ogbene? He’s been redeployed to a striker spot this season. He’ll carry the ball, leave defenders in his wake and get fans on the edge of their seats. He is box office.
Finally, one of our own Ben Wiles should be on the watchlist. His vision, creativity, and ball-carrying skills cause midfields problems. There’s a reason Burnley are interested in his services, he’s our best player.
MC: In terms of tactics, what can Sunderland expect to encounter?
WD: Set pieces continue to be a key area of strength for the Millers. We’ve scored the most goals and created the highest xG from set pieces thus far in this campaign.
Much will depend on Dan Barlaser spraying balls wide, living up to his ‘Geordie Pirlo’ name, to bring the wing backs into play. If you’ve listened to the Moment of Truth podcast with Paul Warne, you’ll know he’s keen on getting the ball into the box. Rotherham put 200 more crosses into the box than anyone in English football last term, so step one for Sunderland will be to defend their box and defend it well (sounds straight forward, hopefully it won’t be).
Out of possession, I expect us to try and restrict the space you have. I suspect the two teams are basically matching up so it’ll be pretty much a man-for-man encounter. Our press is aggressive, relentless and wears teams down.
MC: Which eleven players do you think Warne will select?
WD: Johansson, Norton-Cuffy, Harding, Hall, Peltier, Ferguson, Barlaser, Wiles, Rathbone, Ogbene, Eaves.
MC: Sunderland are without a win against Rotherham in our last three meetings, what is your prediction for the final score?
WD: Going to be a tough night for us. You guys are scoring goals, but also giving up a lot of open play chances (3rd most shots against). Think this could be quite an open one, crowd rocking. I’d take a point, I’ll go 2-2.