Sunderland AFC Match Preview – Black Cats could do double over Cheltenham, but depends which Sunderland turn up

Jonny Lambert assesses the line-ups for tonight's game at Cheltenham

We are back on the midweek roadshow as the official Sunderland circus stops next at the wonderfully named Jonny Rocks Stadium, to face Michael Duff’s Cheltenham Town.

Now, much Like Doncaster last Saturday, you’d be fooled into thinking the elusive league double is nailed on, especially after dishing out the 5-0 treatment at the SoL earlier this season. But that isn’t quite how things work on Wearside at the moment for a club with a long-term project and playing philosophy, that is currently masquerading as a basket case of a third tier outfit – much to the amusement of our neighbours up the road, and bemusement to the rest of the football league.

The spa town is primarily known for its horse racing with the famous Cheltenham festival incorporating the iconic Gold Cup, an occasion where both the riches and the rags attend – the latter trying their best to imitate Peaky Blinders. As such there isn’t a rich history of football in the town, just a League Two Champions honour to their name, under the leadership of Gary Johnson (or as we prefer to call him, Lee’s dad). Amusingly the Robins have a rivalry with county neighbours Gloucester City in a tie know locally as El Glosico.. which is the height of west country banter – I should know, I’ve worked in both areas.

So, we had a good look at the Robins back in late September when we benefitted immensely from their naive high line. That being said there was some excellent football played that night by the lads, with on-loan Nathan Broadhead pulling all the strings, supporting talisman Ross Stewart. A reminder that when we turn it on and get early goals, we can dish out the treatment in this league – sadly you have to go back to Christmas time to be reminded of it.

Striker Alfie May is the clubs top scorer with a respectable 12 goals this term, 9 of which are in the league, backed up with a couple of assists. The Robins average just over one goal per game, which would be fine for a newly promoted side if they weren’t shipping goals like the 2022 version of Sunderland. They had a steady start to the season, but have failed to win a game since 23rd November, which now sees them sat 17th only four points above safety.

The Robins play a 3-5-2 formation, utilising wingbacks and having two up top. Centre back Owen Boyle, who has been at the club five years now is the captain, and will lead the team into tonight’s game. His defensive colleague Sean Long is likely to be missing having pick up an injury early in the game against Rotherham recently. Liam Sercombe is a canny operator in midfield, joined in the middle by Connor Thomas.

As for the lads, if Saturday was anything to go by, it’ll be the same XI again – forsaking injuries. Not to panic anyone, but I have heard a whisper Ross Stewart is doubtful. Should that be the case, Jack Clarke and Jermain Defoe will be the only likely options to lead the line in the Scotsman’s absence. For me Jay Matete must start, he instantly looked comfortable on the ball when introduced against Donny, and is a natural replacement for a run-ragged Dan Neil. Tactically dropped Arbenit Xhemajli and injured Bailey Wright could really do with being available tonight, otherwise I find it hard to see us keeping a clean sheet. I say that as not only are we playing a midfielder at the back, but  Callum Doyle, much like Neil, is burnt out after no rest in his first senior season (and Dennis Cirkin isn’t much fresher).

Mike Dodds and Michael Proctor remain in temporary charge as the never ending recruitment process continues. The lads will be backed by a sold out away end once again, a ground with a capacity of just over 7,000, enough to fit an entire Jermain Defoe fan club inside. The remit is fairly simple now, win almost all the remaining games. Get your shit together away from home, and maybe, just maybe we’ll have some form going into the dreaded play-offs.