Sunderland AFC Match Preview – Let’s get back to business as usual on the pitch

After a week of off-the-field excitement, we go back to being a football club on Saturday with the visit of basement boys Doncaster Rovers. Jonny Lambert takes a look at the runners and riders on both sides

It’s never a dull week on Wearside with staff and player comings and goings, but we cannot forget that it’s business as usual as the lads play host to strugglers Doncaster Rovers on Saturday, on what we expect to be a heavily snarled-up Stadium of Light pitch.

Having been up and down the entire length of the EFL pyramid, life hasn’t been easy for Donny, who now sit rooted firmly to the bottom of League One. In recent history, the season of 2013/14 saw Donny sign One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson for, I assume, a laugh. He never made a first team start owing mainly to Gabby Agbonlahor wiping him out in a charity match – good old Gabby getting in the spirit of a giving occasion.

Tomlinson, along with John Ryan did however attempt a takeover of the club, but this failed to go through in the same season they lost their Championship status. Last season, Donny were the early front runners under the stewardship of Darren Moore, however when Moore took the Sheffield Wednesday job, Rovers fizzled out to 14thplace.

They started this season with Richie Wellens in charge, but with no signs of progression he was given the boot and in came new young manager Gary McSheffrey. Results haven’t really improved since, just the odd rogue result like beating MK Dons away. The chances of survival will ultimately be at the feet of the eight players brought in during the January window.

Our very own Ollie Younger made the move in the quest for first team football, and has immediately made a positive impact, joined by full backs John Martin and Ben Jackson who have both been brought in on loan from West Ham and Huddersfield respectively.

As their position suggests, Donny have been goal-shy this season, so McSheffrey will be hoping signings Mipo Odubeko (loan), veteran journeyman Kieran Agard, and youngster Reo Griffiths will add that much-needed firepower. The latter has signed from Lyon having had a fruitful age group season at Tottenham, where he netted 41 goals in 44 games with 12 assists.

Joseph Dodoo is the club’s leading scorer with just seven goals to date. Goalkeeper Jonathan Mitchell has come in from Hartlepool and made his debut in the south Yorkshire derby against leaders Rotherham Tuesday night. It was a disaster for Mitchell who was at fault for three of the goals, as Rotherham ran riot winning 5-0 (of course Will Grigg didn’t score). Keeper Louis Jones may find himself recalled sooner rather than later. Shipping goals has been a major problem for Donny who have lost 6-0, 6-0, 5-0, and 4-0 this season, which is making Sunderland’s defensive stats mildly palatable.

For the lads it’s been quite a week. After the 6-0 humiliation at the hands of Bolton, Lee Johnson was given his P45, a decision that has polarised opinion among fans. From a WMS viewpoint the general consensus was that something had to give, as results like that for a club like Sunderland in the third tier, cannot continually happen.

However, in light of the recruitment options suggested, there are concerns the club appear to be moving away from their initial project, or didn’t have an immediate replacement ready. At time of writing, the club are into a second day of interviewing, with bookies’ favourite Roy Keane the frontrunner – well certainly amongst the media and reminiscing fans.

In terms of this weekend U23s coaches Michael ‘fresh air’ Proctor and Mike Dodds take interim charge of the team, supported by retained first team coaches Phil Jevons and David Preece. Dodds was appointed Head of Individual Player Development last year, before being shoehorned into the u23s role following the departure of Elliot Dickman. Dodds’ experience in that former role should hopefully give him some familiarisation with the current first team crop.

Unless you’ve been living under a stone for the last few days (or have never heard of Wee Phillie), Jermain Defoe has made a return to the club. It’s certainly a signing that has raised Sunderland’s profile once again, with KLD and supporters alike hoping he hits the ground running.

I’d expect Defoe to make an appearance off the bench having had a few days to meet the lads and get some time on the training pitch.

Also brought in on deadline day was Jay Matete, a highly rated young central midfielder from Fleetwood Town.

Aiden O’Brien has joined Denver Hume down at Portsmouth after a frustrating spell on Wearside, but the big surprise was the departure of Tom Flanagan to Shrewsbury Town. Business wise it makes sense, he’s in the last six months of his contract. However, we are incredibly light on centre backs now following Younger and Frederik Alves departing this month, so this may have been a little short sighted given Flanagan played 28 games this season.

Kristjaan Speakman has spoken about the centre back position and efforts were made to bring another in, but without getting one over the line, the club is comfortable with the four options they have, but will explore the free agent market.

The starting line-up this weekend is very hard to predict as interim coaches or a new Head Coach will be picking the XI, and we’ve had some new arrivals in the last ten days. The big question will be whether we revert to the unbeaten formation which includes five at the back, that’ll be almost certainly down to whether Bailey Wright is deemed fit.

But we cannot forget Arbenit Xhemajli who has featured in Proctor’s U23 side of late, and may have the backing of the former Sunderland striker. With 33 games played so far, Dan Neil is well overdue a rest, but whether Metete comes straight in will be a question mark. So far Danny Batth is the only player to go straight in upon signing. Encouraging cameos from Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke may see them pushing for a starting place on either wing, and hopefully the return of chief presser, Alex Pritchard, at 10.

The bottom of the league team at home is a nice fixture to have, given the instability and frenzies of the last week, but it is critical the lads get back to winning ways. Wigan are in FA Cup action this weekend, so it’s a great opportunity to get back up in the automatic places, set up camp and claim squatters rights for the rest of the season.