Thanks for talking to Argyle Life today. What made you catch the Sunderland bug?
Hi. Many thanks for asking me to do the interview!
Being born in Sunderland and growing up in the area, it was almost impossible not to be surrounded by people who were already Sunderland mad. My Dad and uncles all followed the team and took me along to Roker Park from an early age. Football is like a religion up in the North-East and most people who go to a game end up getting hooked into the cult for life!
It’s been quite a catastrophic few years as a Sunderland fan. What’s that been like?
Pretty soul destroying most of the time. We managed 10 successive years in the Premiership before going down but diced with relegation in almost every one of them. The seasons before we did go down featured a couple of miraculous late escapes. To be honest, the writing had been on the wall for quite some time.
Last season there was a belief amongst many fans that we would at least challenge for a playoff spot in the Championship. Clearly it didn’t work out with the same management team in place and featuring many of the players that were simply not fit to wear a Sunderland shirt. Ellis Short (previous owner) was desperate to sell the club and had tightened the purse strings meaning we had next to no money to spend on new players. Also, we had real problems trying to sell players whose reputations had plummeted but were still on astronomical wages. We now find ourselves in the third tier of English football after being relegated from the Championship at the first time of asking.
Short lacked knowledge of running a football club and tried to put people in place to deal with the footballing side of things. In the end, that only resulted in a catalogue of disastrous appointments and, ultimately, the recruitment of players who were more interested in the money and glamour of the Premier League than playing for Sunderland.
Is it in a way a relief to be winning most weeks even if it is in League One?
Very much so! A lot has been said amongst Sunderland fans that the pure joy of winning games is something we had forgotten all about .Football means so much to us and results really can make or break our mood over the entire week.
What are your thoughts on Jack Ross since taking over in the summer?
I’ve been very impressed with him from day one. Ending up in League 1 and with financial restraints in place, we were never going to attract any kind of household name. To be honest, we’d had enough of those and most didn’t work out too well anyway.
From the beginning there was a very close relationship between the new owners, management staff and Jack. They identified an overwhelming need to bring a certain type of player – players with a lot of mental toughness, being hungry for success, seeing us as a step up in their careers and embracing the challenge of playing for a huge fanbase. He’s gained us countless points just from the way he’s made tactical changes and substitutions as games have gone on. He’s a very thoughtful and intelligent manager and the players speak incredibly highly of him.
Who has really shone out for you this season?
First and foremost, the connection between the owners, players and fans has returned and is only getting stronger. That’s no mean feat considering it had been damaged almost to the point of no return.
In terms of players – quite a few! Our keeper Jon McLaughlin has been outstanding of late after having one or two average games earlier in the season. The fans are going crazy for Chris Maguire who seems to display many of the qualities we have been missing in a player for years now. He’s recently been nicknamed ‘The King’! We also love the way he often winds up opposing players and fans with his special brand of ‘shithousery’. Josh Maja is joint second in league 1 scoring with 9 goals and he’s been very sharp in and around the box. Lee Cattermole has been a revelation since establishing himself in the starting XI and even chips in with a goal or two to accompany his yellow cards! Lynden Gooch has been very creative and has a real eye for goal.
And any weak links?
In early games it was very noticeable that we were struggling to defend set pieces and deal with crosses. We ended up conceding the majority of our goals that way. Jack Ross seems to have done a lot of work with the players on training and we’ve now kept 3 clean sheets in a row. We often started games slowly and fell behind. One theory was the opposition players and fans are so hyped up to play Sunderland that they come out all guns blazing and make it very hard for us at the beginning of games. Jack Ross has worked on this over time and the players seem much more conditioned for the early battle and not letting the opposition dominate early on.
We signed Charlie Wyke from Bradford (striker) and he’s been injured for most of the time so far. We’re pretty light up front with 19 year old Josh Maja, who’s fortunately having a breakthrough season for us and scoring regularly. That leaves us with just the on loan Jerome Sinclair who has worked hard but is yet to make a big impact overall.
You sold out your allocation for this game within weeks. Has it been a surreal experience going to League One stadiums after years of the Premier League?
We’ve sold out every away game this season so far. Our fans have genuinely loved going to League 1 stadiums. There’s something to be said about going to a ‘proper football ground’ and the more intimate atmosphere between the two sets of fans that often isn’t in existence at Premier League stadiums. It’s great for fans to visit stadiums that they haven’t been to before.
How likely do you see it that Sunderland will get over the line this season?
The signs are good at the moment. We are 3 points off top spot with a game in hand. Momentum is building off the back of several good results lately. Perhaps the most promising sign is we have started to battle out results. In early games we getting bullied out of it and perhaps weren’t ready for the physical scraps a lot of teams gave us.
The expectation of the manager and players is to win the league. Fans certainly expect playoffs as a minimum but most Sunderland supporters will be disappointed if we don’t go up in one of the automatic promotions spots.
And what are your views on Argyle so far and of their chances of success?
With the greatest of respect, I haven’t really followed League 1 teams and players due to us being in the Premier League for most of our recent history. I seem to recall you were one of the fancied teams at the start of the season? Obviously you’ve had a rough start but It looks like you’re starting to string a few results together now. The match against Sunderland could be a huge confidence boost if you get a result, or at least put a good performance in.
Finally, a score prediction for the game?
Looking at your recent form, scoring 9 in the past 3 league games and winning two of those, you may well prove to be a tricky opposition for us. However, we’re currently the league’s form team and have been scoring well (we’ve scored in every league game this season). I’m going to go for a 3-1 Sunderland win.