Sunderland’s return to the Championship has gone rather well so far. The Black Cats sit ninth heading into the weekend’s fixtures, just two points off the top six, in what’s been a strong first season after promotion from League One.
To find out some more about what’s gone right at the Stadium of Light, we had a chat with Sunderland fan and podcaster Graham Falk. You can find him on Twitter @GrahamFalk and his podcast on Twitter at @WhatTheFalkPod.
How would you sum up the season so far?
Much better than expected and a really uplifting time to support the Lads, to be completely honest. I said I’d take 15th at the beginning of the campaign and we’re definitely - and deservedly - in the mix for the play-offs. We are playing some of the best football we’ve played in recent memory with a squad of very young and talented players.
When you take into account our manager walked out on us four games into the season and we’ve had just about every important player miss a large chunk of the season (Ross Stewart, Dan Ballard, Corry Evans, Ellis Simms, Elliot Embleton and Dennis Cirkin have all been out for two months or longer this season) then it makes it even more remarkable we’ve done so well. Long may it continue.
How’s Tony Mowbray getting on in the dugout?
I didn’t want Tony at all. I was gutted when Alex Neil left and felt Tony Mowbray was a boring, short-sighted appointment - I’ve never been more delighted to be completely wrong.
With Tony, it’s one of those situations that has really worked out and he has been a perfect fit. He gets the club, what it means and what the fans want to see from the team, but his biggest plus has been his father-like attitude towards a squad that has an average age of 22. He seems to trust them, guide them and they are flourishing. I absolutely love the man.
What are the main strengths of this Sunderland team?
We are fearless and arguably the nicest football team to watch in the division. Our one-touch football (see our last game) is a joy to watch and the way the boys go about their football is admirable.
The link between Amad and Paddy Roberts is frightening and is as good a link-up as I’ve seen in many years. I think there’s a few teams who’ll read that and think we might be a bit wet behind the ears but the Lads stood up to a very physical, wily Millwall team last week - so we can mix it too.
Naivety I guess? But it’s certainly not regular. I can count on one hand the amount of games I’ve watched this season and come back disappointed. It’s honestly been a great campaign.
Our weakness is probably strength in depth in the striking positions. Ross is out for the season now and, quite simply, we are a better team with him in it. Ellis Simms was recalled by Everton so we only have young Joffy Gelhardt on loan from Leeds as a striking option - we don’t have any options off the bench if that doesn’t work, which forces a system change that sees us put a midfielder up front. We went 11 games without being able to play a striker earlier in the season and it caught up with us a little so we really hope Joffy hits the ground running and, crucially, stays fit.
How do you see the rest of the season playing out?
Going back to my answer to the last question, the rest of the campaign rests on that striking situation. If Joffy gets injured or doesn’t work out it is bad news. In many ways this season is already a success, but there is a feeling we can really push for promotion through the play-offs if we fancy it - but we’ve lost our best player in Ross Stewart and our captain in Corry Evans for the season and not really replaced them and it could hinder that.
Many will be delighted with a top-10 finish - as would I - but you can’t pick and choose promotion and I have to stay I’d tip us to potentially do a double promotion through the play-offs had everyone stayed fit. So yes, we will probably flirt with the top six but fall a bit short.
How will the game go on Saturday and what will the score be?
Our home form had been a bit patchy before the World Cup but we’ve comfortably beaten Millwall, Middlesbrough and Blackburn so it appears to have fixed itself. I fancy us against anyone in this league - I really do.
In turn, there’s no easy games in the Championship. That said, I think we’ll have a little too much for you and our recent good home form will continue with a 2-0 win - I think!