With four defeats in your last six games, it seems like the best time to play Sheffield United, what are the factors behind your recent dip in form?
In all fairness, it’s hard to pinpoint the majority of the factors but I’ll try my best.
I think team selection has definitely been one, John Fleck has only just recently come back from a lengthy period away with injury and he’s straight back in the starting 11 even though the likes of Tommy Doyle and James McAtee have been very good as of late, it doesn’t make much sense.
Sander Berge can be thrown into that conversation at the moment also as he’s suffering from a lack of form. Obviously with losing games will come a lack of confidence and as those lost games have come against playing better teams like Boro and Millwall for example, that won’t help if we do end up in the play offs either.
But with losing those games and that lack of confidence, there’s going to be an element of safety amongst the players.
Whether it be shown within the tactics of Heckingbottom or not being as courageous enough to go and impact the game in a positive way.
So not playing those players in form and sticking with the lads who have been a large part in the games we’ve lost and therefore lacking confidence, those factors go hand in hand for explaining of recent form.
With Middlesbrough now just four points behind, are Blades starting to worry that you’re going to lose out on automatic promotion?
Yeah of course. Our form as of late has left a lot to be desired, and those losses have come against teams in and around us as well which isn’t ideal.
I think Blades fans would be a lot more confident would it not be for the fact that our performances recently haven’t been great either. We haven’t really dominated a game other than Swansea at home last month, most of our wins have been by a single goal since the turn of the year.
We just haven’t looked as confident or as free as we were at the start of the season recently, we haven’t played at the pace, intensity or quality as we know and have seen this group perform at for large periods of this season.
And to see that at this point of the season is worrying. To go with the incredible form that Middlesbrough are in as well, scoring for fun, tactically look so good and just playing with the swagger of a side that know they are going to win most times they step on the pitch, yeah, there’s definitely a worry there amongst United supporters.
Aside from the Championship, Sheffield United have a FA Cup quarter-final tie with Blackburn on Sunday - in a way has that run come at the worst time or are fans confident a trip to Wembley would push the players on to achieve promotion?
In all fairness, I think most United fans minds are on the Championship.
While obviously we would absolutely love a day at Wembley, for the future of the club both in a financial and league aspect, we need to get promoted this season otherwise I think we will struggle in this division for a while.
We’d lose our best players, we’re currently under an embargo, probably coming to the end of the cycle with the majority of this group of players so we would need a rebuild, and just for the simple fact that you want to play at as high a level as possible. Looking at it from what it could do for our season, it could leave us one of two ways.
Either depleted and tired for the final push as we’d have to play even more Saturday Tuesday Saturday Tuesday weeks, or it could give us the confidence and momentum to get us over the line.
If we were to win on Sunday, I would actually predict it would do the latter. But we need to get something at the Stadium of Light first and foremost and then beat Blackburn at the weekend before we think about that.
Former Sunderland defender Paul Heckingbottom has done brilliantly in charge of the club since being appointed as permanent manager, has he gone above your expectations?
No not really, I think he’s met them.
Looking at that squad on paper, it should be getting promoted as I struggle to find any better, bar maybe Watford.
Now, obviously the game isn’t played on paper and I think most wouldn’t have predicted Burnley’s exploits this season so that’s fair enough.
But, at the very least we should be occupying that second spot as we do currently so I wouldn’t say he’s gone above expectations. If we do get promoted through the play offs then in all fairness I’ll still say he’s met them, the expectation is promotion, if that doesn’t happen when we were at one point, 14 points clear of third place that will be a massive failure.
But, to his credit, right now we are second in the Championship and 90 minutes away from a day at Wembley. Ask me again at the end of the season.
The man who receives all the headlines at the Blades is Sander Berge, how crucial was it to keep the midfielder in January?
Well his performances since the transfer window have left a lot to be desired, I don’t just think that’s down to him but I don’t think it's helped with fan's opinions on him, which now go into the “we should’ve cashed in in January” kinda mentality.
As a player, when he’s on song, in this division there isn’t anyone better in my opinion. He’s a fantastic ball carrier, calm in possession, strong, and deceptively quick once he gets going. However, those moments haven’t come often enough this campaign.
And especially recently as he’s being kept back a bit more than at the start of the season which does limit his attacking output, which is where I believe, Sander Berge flourishes.
Further forward, both Oli McBurnie and Iliman Ndiaye both have scored double figures this season, what makes the duo so dangerous?
They both have qualities that really complement each other.
With McBurnie being a physical presence he can occupy defenders while his technical ability allows him to maintain possession while attracting pressure.
This then draws players away from Ndiaye so by the time he receives the ball, he either has space to run into or is 1v1 with defenders, both things you don’t want to happen if you’re the opposition as he is a fantastic talent running with the ball.
And then when they’re both within the 18 yard box, they both have the quality and the output to go and make the difference by finishing or creating chances.
Aside from the above-mentioned players, who should Tony Mowbray’s side be wary of during the game?
In recent games, there hasn’t been many to shout about. Obviously on his day, Anel Ahmedhodzic is a brilliant attacking threat down the right side so if he feels more confident in his running forward with Baldock on his side we may see the best of him tonight.
And Tommy Doyle as well. He was outstanding in our 1-0 win against Tottenham in the FA Cup a few weeks ago and hasn’t started since which has been surprising for many United supporters.
If he starts, he likes to go searching for the ball to try and progress it on the half turn, isn’t scared to have a go from distance and will try to make late runs into the 18 yard box as well.
How do you expect Heckingbottom to set up tactically at the Stadium of Light?
I think out wide is your strength, I think Diallo and Clarke, Roberts as well if he’s involved are all technically good players. That’s why I think he’ll start with Baldock instead of Bogle at right wing back as he’s a slightly safer bet in terms of defensive solidity.
I think those wide areas for us have been weak recently as well so if I was Tony Mowbray I’d look to exploit those areas. Or in particular runs in the gaps that Robinson and Ahmedhodzic leave, they both go aggressive to win the ball back if one of the opposition players drops in to receive, one good pattern of play and you’re in behind us.
We’ll try and get Norwood to drop in and get on the ball to dictate the game in front of us, see if we can get the wing backs 1v1 then go and make overloads either side. Ndiaye will need to see a lot of the ball in the half spaces to see if he can work his magic to make half a yard to try and create something for us.
Which eleven players do you think he will select?
Foderingham, Ahmedhodzic, Egan, Robinson, Baldock, Berge, Norwood, Doyle, Lowe, McBurnie, Ndiaye.
Sunderland’s last win over Sheffield United at home came in 2005, what is your score prediction for this time around?
1-0 to Sunderland.