Sunderland AFC Match Preview – Full backing for Alex Neil’s first home game in charge

Jonny Lambert previews this weekend's clash between Sunderland and MK Dons

In among all the revelations of the past couple of weeks, you’d be forgiven for not remembering that we also play football, and this week we host Milton Keynes Dons.

Well the history lesson won’t take long, as they were only formed in 2004 when they burgled Wimbledon’s league status, following their relegation and lack of permanent home. Much daft talk previously had Sam Hammam muting a proposed move to Dublin (yes Dublin, in actual Ireland), following the condemnation of the old Plough Lane, and their tenancy up at neighbours Crystal Palace and Selhurst Park. Subsequently Wimbledon used the then-retired National Hockey stadium in Milton Keynes to fulfil their fixtures, before MK Dons took over their status.

Now I’ve had the displeasure of visiting the relatively new town, built in the 1960’s and navigated by the name of roundabouts as opposed to the roads. It’s essentially a grid, and when I visited to watch the lads win 2-1 in 2004 (still under the guise of Wimbledon), it was at said Hockey Stadium – and you think League One grounds are tin pot. Of course it hacked it down, but after being at Old Trafford only days before to watch us lose to Millwall in the FA Cup Semi final, a win in the rain was some sort of tonic, but not much. In 2007 they moved into their new 30,500 all seater stadium, aptly named Stadium: MK.

Over the years MK have bounced around the EFL before settling in League One, settling being something you could argue Sunderland themselves have now done. Under the leadership of Liam Manning, January’s League One Manager of the Month, MK currently sit third, two points ahead of the lads.

Forward Scott Twine is the man to watch for MK who has 13 goals and nine assists to his name so far, only Rotherham’s Michael Smith has been involved in more goals in the division. Twine is supported by Mo Eisa and Troy Parrot in what is a dangerous front three. They should line up 3-4-3 and be led by skipper Dean Lewington, with January signings Matt Smith and Kaine Kesler Hayden likely to start.

MK has a very strong away record, with 29 points from their 16 games games on the road. They’re unbeaten in seven on their travels, having not lost since 23 November, winning five of those games

For the lads it’ll be Alex Neil’s first real team selection having had a week on the training ground with his squad. We know in the past he has played 4-3-3, and is not averse to playing three centre-backs. The latter will depend on the fitness of Danny Batth and whether he can join Callum Doyle and Bailey Wright at the back.

Alternatively, give the jaded Doyle a rest to recharge the batteries, something that could also be said for Dan Neil and Ross Stewart. Whereas with the introduction of Jay Matete making Neil expendable, it is unlikely Stewart will get a rest any time soon. Attacking options are a plenty, so as long as Neil has working eyes, Jack Clarke and Alex Pritchard should be preferred in advanced roles.

It’s hard to say what Saturday will bring with a squad so capable, yet so low on confidence. It’s Alex Neil’s first home game and he’ll be hoping that the Sunderland faithful will give him their full backing. Unfortunately for him, owing to the dishonestly displayed by the ownership group, the atmosphere may well be fuelled with discontent and protest… or worse still empty seats.

This isn’t an ideal fixture for the lads, but after failures against relegation fodder, what is?