Matthew Crichton: When the two sides last met Chris Wilder was in charge. What led to his sacking back in October?
Jonny Bullock: Speaking to other clubs. This dates back to April of last year when Sean Dyche was sacked at Burnley. Wilder, instantly became the favourite and wouldn’t shoot down the rumours after multiple attempts of asking. Then once he finally confirmed it Boro’s form dropped through the floor and ended up finishing seventh after sitting comfortably in the playoffs.
It definitely felt like the players lost trust in Wilder after that, which is probably why results dropped.
Then in September, Bournemouth were linked and it was the same cycle.
In the end, poor form and a lack of commitment from the former Sheff United boss saw him get the boot with Boro in the relegation places.
MC: His replacement Michael Carrick has had a brilliant impact so far. What has he changed which has led to an improvement in results?
JB: Not a huge amount to be honest, a tweak in shape moving to a starting back 4 but in-game it’s more of a three as Boro will rotate ever so slightly in and out of possession. On the ball, we’re more patient and try to play out from the back more. But mainly, it’s just been slight tweaks rather than wholesale changes. I think the biggest difference is off the pitch.
The team looks a lot more confident and are really enjoying the environment he is trying to create within the club. You can see that with the likes of Akpom, Forss and Hackney who have all come into the side and done excellently.
Carrick is very process driven, has a utopia view of where he wants to get to and is putting the foundations in place to do that.
MC: Boro are currently 4th in the Championship, 12 points behind the automatic promotion places - do you think an automatic challenge is realistic or is it simply a case of solidifying a playoff spot?
JB: Ha! I’d like to say so, but realistically I don’t think the top two can be caught. Really good squads, in good form and don’t look like dropping off any time soon.
MC: Having never scored double figures in his ENTIRE career, Chuba Akpom finds himself already on 13 goals as the Championship top scorer. Where has his fantastic form come from and what makes him so deadly?
JB: The man management of him by Carrick has definitely helped. Chuba was set to leave in the summer but came in from out of the cold and has been super. Currently playing as a 10, he’ll drop inbetween the lines, bring players with him and create space for the attackers to get in behind which helps a lot as Boro like to use the wingbacks/wingers to create opportunities.
Chuba has struck up a really good relationship with our left-back Ryan Giles too. After studying a lot of Giles’s tapes, he knows where to be at the right time and is able to put the chance away.
MC: Speaking of topping the charts, on-loan left-back Ryan Giles has the joint most assists in the league, is he Boro’s most dangerous creator to stop?
JB: He has a wand of a left foot this boy, his delivery is exceptional. If you’re a forward in the Championship you’ll love to play football with Ryan Giles.
Assists will show he’s the most dangerous player, but the likes of Crooks, Akpom and Marcus Forss on the right hand side are all creating a hatful of chances for each other which is good to see.
MC: Both Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore appear to have found minutes harder to come by under Carrick - how have the ex-Sunderland pair performed this season?
JB: It’s hard to get in when the team are winning, isn’t it. Paddy has come into the side recently due to the injury to Lenihan and had a torrid time against Brighton - but who doesn’t? But he’ll play CB with Dael Fry at the weekend.
As for Duncan, players around him have been in form but also, I think the likes of Forss, McGree, Akpom and now Archer are just better quality players than him so his time may be more limited in the future.
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, which Boro players have impressed recently under Carrick?
JB: Hayden Hackney. The youngster was thrown into the team under interim boss Leo Percovich and has been a mainstay ever since. The 20-year-old academy graduate keeps getting better and better with every game.
He plays as an eight, loves to receive the ball on the half turn and helps get Boro play through the thirds. He’s a really exciting talent.
MC: Given Sunderland’s poor home record this season, how do you think Boro will approach the match tactically?
JB: We always do terribly against Tony Mowbray teams. It’s probably because he watches most of our games with him being a Boro fan.
I think we’ll approach it the same way we have been in recent games but make little tweaks to stop Diallo, Roberts and Stewart from making an impact in the game. Mowbray and poor form just screams typical Boro here... which normally ends in defeat.
MC: Which eleven Boro players do you think will start the match?
JB: Steffen, Smith, Fry, McNair, Giles Howson, Hackney Forss, Akpom, McGree Crooks.
MC: Sunderland are without a win in seven matches against Boro - what is your prediction for the final score?
JB: Tough game but I’m going 1-2 Boro!