Coventry started the season horrendously and were in the relegation spots until November, is there a feeling that without your stadium issues you could have been in the playoffs already?
James Crossan: It’s a tough one to judge – we had a great run pre-World Cup, but until recently had failed to carry on this form since the turn of the year.
I think we’d definitely have been up there without the stadium issues, but another huge factor is Callum O’Hare – it’s no coincidence that our best run of form this season was in the brief period where he was fit and firing.
I think as well that the league has been pretty strong in general this season. The bottom five or six have been poor, but from QPR and up, most teams have enjoyed a lengthy run of form.
Even had we have got off to a better start, it still may not have been enough to catch teams such as Millwall, Luton and Middlesbrough – all of who deserve their spots in the playoffs currently.
Fast forward to the present and you’re currently 11th, six points off a playoff spot, it really is remarkable how well your season was turned around isn’t it?
JC: It’s been a great turnaround. Once we got that first win on the board, we were bound to carry ourselves up the table – even when we were struggling at the start of the season, the performances weren’t horrendous.
We were fairly unlucky and the situation probably appeared worse than it was as we had three or four games in hand on all of the teams above us.
I do think we need to build on our current run of form – three wins from our last five, with trips to strugglers such as Blackpool and Huddersfield on the horizon should hopefully get us up towards the top six going into the business end of the season.
The key man behind that is the Championship’s longest-serving manager, Mark Robins, what are the factors being his prolonged success at Coventry?
JC: Robins has been sensational since he took us over rooted to the bottom of League One back in 2016/17. The recruitment, although questionable at times, has paid dividends; players such as Gus Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres are amongst the best players I’ve ever seen in a City shirt.
I think his pragmatism sets him apart from others – he’s built up enough respect among the supporters to do things his way, and never seems to flap regardless of how the team are performing. Over the past couple of seasons, this has seen us salvage countless points towards the end of games.
A settled backroom setup helps too. Adi Viveash has been crucial to our revival, and deserves credit for some of the ex-Chelsea players we’ve had through the door since he’s been around. It’s clear that he demands respect and both are popular with the squad.
Every Sunderland fan will remember Victor Gyokeres’ stunning strike to level things back at the Stadium of Light, I imagine fans were over the moon to see he stayed after interest from Burnley in January?
JC: He is a superstar. When we made his loan permanent, I don’t think too many fans were expecting fireworks – he’d done well in his loan spell but prolific definitely wouldn’t have been the word anyone would have used to describe him. To have him here (and scoring) until at least the summer was crucial to our season and hopefully he can drive us on to more wins.
He can win a game on his own. As well as being a deadly finisher, he’s developed a side of his game which makes him the focal point in a lot of our build up. This has allowed him to weigh in with assists as well as goals. His recent performances against Huddersfield, Luton and Millwall show he’s in the mood at the moment too – sorry Sunderland.
Callum Doyle is likely to face Sunderland for the first time since leaving last summer, how has he performed this season at Championship level?
JC: He’s definitely stepped up to the level. He was in and out to begin with, but has made the left sided centre back slot his own in recent weeks.
Kyle McFadzean has made him a lot more comfortable to play his own game, so I think he struggled when Fadz was out recently, but the defence as a whole has improved in recent games.
Doyle’s range of passing is a joke – he is a proper tidy centre back. It’s crazy to think he’s still a teenager.
Another ex-Sunderland player is goalkeeper Ben Wilson, who has established himself as your first-choice goalkeeper despite only playing over 10 games in a season 3 times aged 30 - how has he played this season?
JC: He’s definitely an important part of a solid back line. There have been a few wobbly moments, but you can’t argue with his clean sheet record this term. It’s nice to see him getting a good run of games under his belt as he seems like a great bloke who understands the club and the fans – you can’t knock his passion.
I do think if we want to take ourselves to the next level, we might need to think about bringing in competition for him. Simon Moore, who himself had a fantastic season last season, seems to have struggled when called upon. It’s one of the only positions on the pitch which I feel needs urgent recruitment this summer.
Aside from the above-mentioned players, who will Sunderland have to be wary of?
JC: Kasey Palmer is fast becoming a fan favourite. He seems to have finally settled in after a difficult start, where nothing seemed to come off for him. Bristol City fans were very quick to say ‘I told you so’ after his first ten games, where the whole team struggled to find their rhythm, but since the turn of the year we’ve had the last laugh.
Palmer has added goals and assists to his game, and has that ability to beat a man that we have lacked for a long time. When O’Hare was ruled out for the rest of the season, a lot of pressure was put on Kasey’s shoulders, but up until now he’s dealt with it fantastically. He will run all day, often heading out on lung-bursting presses deep into the second half, but is also seriously fun to watch – he’s guaranteed to pull off an outrageous flick at some point during the game.
What would you say are the key differences in your side since we faced you on the opening day of the season?
JC: I think both sides will be coming into this game with more confidence compared to the reverse fixture. Sunderland have more than proved they’re able to compete at this level, whereas we are coming into it playing some fantastic football.
I think this game will be won and lost in midfield – we’re without Ben Sheaf, which is a huge blow. Josh Eccles has deputised well when needed, but is relatively inexperienced and having to defend against the likes of Patrick Roberts and Amad Diallo could be a real test.
How do you think Robins will approach the match tactically and which eleven players do you think he will select?
JC: Robins isn’t one to chop and change, so I can see us coming into this one unchanged. I reckon we will lean on the experience of Jake Bidwell against Patrick Roberts rather than bringing in January loan signing Josh Wilson-Esbrand after he served his suspension for a red against Luton.
Ben Wilson in goal, back three of McNally, Fadz and Doyle, Brooke Norton-Cuffy and Bidwell wing backs will make up the defence. A sitting midfield pairing of Gus Hamer and Josh Eccles will do the dirty work for Jamie Allen and Kasey Palmer. Vik to start up top on his own – but if it’s not working, Matty Godden could be called upon in the second half to haunt Sunderland fans again.
Sunderland’s last victory against Coventry came back in 2007! What is your score prediction for today’s match?
JC: Hopeful that we can continue our good form and win the midfield battle. 2-1 Coventry – Palmer and Fadz to score, with Hamer man of the match!