Matthew Crichton: Sunderland’s former assistant manager, Steve Cotterill, has been manager of Shrewsbury now since November 2020, how would you summarise his tenure in charge so far?
Dan Hough: That’s a tricky one. On the face of it, it’s been a success. Only Fleetwood have now been in this division longer than we have and given that we are a club that looks at League One survival as a starting point we should be reasonably pleased with where we are. Given that Cotterill is now into his third year as manager and given that we’re mid-table he’s clearly made a contribution to helping us continue to compete in League One.
However, his tenure has been a rather odd one. It started with him getting Covid and spending a fair amount of time in hospital. Indeed, there were times when we were seriously worried that he might not come through. During that time the side was pretty resilient and staying up in 2020-21 was a significant achievement.
That was followed up a lower mid-table finish in 2021-22 and with the addition of several decent players (such as former Black Cat Tom Flanagan) there was hope that a little more consistency might be forthcoming and we might be able to push into the top half of the division this year. That could still happen, but three poor defeats (all against sides near the bottom) over Christmas has dented confidence a bit.
Off the field, Cotterill has regularly been decidedly feisty with the media and indeed hasn’t endeared himself to parts of the fan base as a result. He’s good at coming up with excuses when in reality he’s been (at least partly) responsible for some of the things he moans about. He likes working with a small squad; all fine, but when you get a few injuries don’t go moaning about how hard things are selection-wise. Plus, he likes picking the same side week in week out; fine, but don’t go moaning that your players being tired when you don’t rotate around (at least a little).
I think it’s subsequently fair to say Cotterill’s not really loved, but he is – by most – grudgingly respected.
MC: Salop are currently 7 points clear of the relegation zone, but are one of the lowest scorers in the league, are you confident of staying up this season?
DH: Well, we have lost the last three so I am very wary of tempting fate! But, yes, we need 21 points from 22 games to stay up and if we don’t get that then we’ll deserve to go down.
In January we have a run of games against the so-called weaker sides. Pick up two or three wins there and we really should be thinking about whether we can indeed finish in the top half of the table for what would be only the second time in 30 years.
If we continue this poor run of form then, well…
MC: In terms of your recent form, Shrewsbury have lost their last three matches, has squad depth been an issue over the busy festive period?
DH: Yes. It’s always an issue. Cotterill likes a small squad, but we now have five out injured and that impacts us significantly. We have one of our better-attacking players (Jordan Shipley, ex-Coventry) playing left wing-back and we have also had both of our first-choice right wing-backs out. That does make things trickier.
That having been said, we’ve also been a bit unlucky. We had three red cards over Christmas … two of which were rescinded after the game. That’s been very frustrating, particularly as one of the reds was very early in the game against Fleetwood. Keeping 11 men on the field against Sunderland would be a welcome achievement!
MC: Moving onto the trio of ex-Sunderland players at your club, Tom Flanagan looks set to miss the match through injury - a year on since his move, has he been a good signing?
DH: Yes. I am a big fan. He has been a calming influence and he fits well into the back three.
We will have someone there (Taylor Moore) who can come in as a natural replacement, but Flanagan is the first choice and he’s a loss.
MC: Another who will miss out is Carl Winchester being on loan, where has he predominantly played this season and is he someone you’d like to see the club sign permanently?
DH: Winchester is another who has been quietly effective. He has been playing as one of two holding midfielders. He’s added real shape and he’s been effective at breaking up play when the opposition has had the ball.
As a water-carrier he’s been excellent and I’d certainly be keen to see him stay. He also definitely fancies himself when shooting from outside the box. No goals yet, but he hit the post against Pompey and the rebound was knocked in. We’re pleased with what he brings.
MC: Lastly, Aidan O’Brien is yet to score for Shrewsbury, so we both know what is likely to happen here! How has he played so far since joining?
DH: Well, to quote Meatloaf, two out of three ain’t bad, right?
O’Brien has hardly played. He’s just not been fit. He’s been on the bench of late, but even then we’ve hardly seen him. Given that goal-scoring has been an issue, I can only assume he’s still a fair way away from being fit.
In the fleeting appearances that he has made, he’s certainly looked like he badly needs game time.
As you say, O’Brien scoring the winning goal on Saturday is almost certainly incoming now!
MC: Aside from the above-mentioned players, who will Sunderland have to be wary of during the match?
DH: The two former Coventry lads, Jordan Shipley and Tom Bayliss, have been the attacking highlights and most of our good play goes through them. Bayliss is quicker than he looks and he has an eye for goal. Keep an eye on those two.
Christian Saydee is the official definition of a ‘big unit’ up front. He holds the ball up well and he’s key in buying time so players can get up to him. He doesn’t score enough goals (and that’s, I guess, why Bournemouth have loaned him out; he needs to build that into his game), but when playing well he offers plenty.
MC: I remember Shrewsbury from last season being a very physical team that is difficult to break down, how do you think Cotterill will approach the match tactically?
DH: You’ve nailed it. We’ll be a physical team that’s tough to break down. It’ll be interesting to see who replaces Winchester in the middle of the park, but no matter who plays there we’ll be 3-4-1-2 and the aim will be to start solid and see where we go from there.
One thing to note, if we go one up then I am afraid you can expect shithousery of the very highest order. I don’t enjoy saying it, but everything will slow (right) down and we’ll try to kill all momentum in the game stone dead. You’ve been warned!
MC: I expect Sunderland to play a more weakened youthful side, which eleven players do you think will lineup for Shrewsbury?
DH: Cotterill doesn’t like change. Crikey, does he not like change! But he’ll have to make at least two when we compared with the lineups we’ve had over Christmas.
The open question is who will come into the middle of the park alongside skipper Luke Leahy. My feeling is that he will either play our new loanee (Killian Phillips from Palace) about whom we know little or he’ll bring in Elliott Bennet, the former Blackburn defender who is just back from injury. My hunch is that he’ll go with Bennett.
I expect Taylor Moore (loanee from Bristol City) will come in for Flanagan and Rekeil Pyke – theoretically a centre-forward, but a player who Cotterill is in the process of transforming into a wing-back (!) – to play out on the right.
MC: Sunderland have failed to win any of their last 3 visits to Shrewsbury - what is your prediction for the final score?
DH: I am usually pessimistic. It’s in the DNA, I think. But, say it quietly, Saturday is an opportunity and after a poor festive season we need to see a response from the side. I am going 1-0 Salop.