|Sunderland 2 v 0 Ipswich Town|
SkyBet League One
Saturday, 20th November 2021 Kick-off 15:00
Cook: Sunderland Had a Frighteningly Good Start, They’ve Just Had a Tiny Blip
Friday, 19th Nov 2021 12:05
Town boss Paul Cook has dismissed suggestions that the Blues are travelling to face Sunderland at the Stadium of Light at a good time, the Black Cats' form having slipped recently after a blistering start to the campaign.
Having begun the season impressively, failing to win only three of their first 17 games in all competitions, losing twice, the Wearsiders are now without a victory in their last six, including three successive League One defeats.
After topping the table in the early stages, they are now down to seventh, two places and four points ahead of the Blues, with manager Lee Johnson, who was born in Suffolk during his father Gary’s time as a player with Newmarket Town, is seeing his position start to come under some scrutiny.
At home they have a strong league record, however, having won six and lost one of their seven matches at the Stadium of Light, Charlton’s 1-0 victory a month ago, although they were beaten 1-0 by League Two Mansfield on Wearside in the FA Cup a fortnight ago.
While some Town supporters might see now as a good time to be facing Sunderland, who weren’t in action last weekend due to international calls, Cook says he sees things differently, although he says he’d love to join the fans for an afternoon watching the Blues.
“Watching our support, there are times when I feel like jumping on a Supporters Club coach, having a few pints with the fans and watching the game behind the goal, let me tell you! I’d love it, unfortunately it would mean I’ve lost my job and don’t want that to happen!” he laughed.
“I think you’ve only got to look at the players that Sunderland will put on the pitch tomorrow, every game is no different than for Ipswich, it’s a cup final for teams who play Sunderland.
“Sunderland have had a frighteningly good start, they’ve had a tiny little blip at the minute and they go away quickly when you’ve got a quality manager in Lee and you’ve got quality players on the pitch. Those problems will self-fix.
“Tomorrow, we approach a very difficult game, again with great optimism, we’re going up there and as our supporters know, there is no parking buses, there is none of the above, we are going to take the game to Sunderland and let’s see what it brings.”
The trip to the Stadium of Light is the first of two games in four days against teams in the top seven with Rotherham, who are third, at Portman Road on Tuesday.
“I’ve got good relationships with both managers, they’ve both got very, very strong teams,” Cook reflected.
“Rotherham will take care of itself when it comes round on Tuesday, probably a totally different game than Saturday’s, but we’ll only really speak about the Sunderland game at the minute, it’s one hurdle at a time. It’s a very good game for everyone to look forward to and we’re all excited.”
As is his usual habit, Cook was giving nothing away about the fitness of his squad at his pre-match press conference.
“You know yourselves that there is no need to do that,” he said. “I try my best to help you as much as I can, but I think the topics of players and individuals on a Friday is just becoming more of a no. I respect the fact that you guys [the media] respect that.”
The spine of the Blues’ side which has now climbed to ninth, four points from the play-offs in recent weeks is starting to become more and more established with Christian Walton in goal, George Edmundson at centre-half, skipper Sam Morsy in midfield and Macauley Bonne the central striker.
“I think that’s something you crave for, even last week’s game, I really enjoyed us in the second half against Oxford and then you’re looking for your flair players to get you a goal,” Cook continued.
“The solidity in your team is built on a solid foundation, goals normally come through your flair players, your full-backs attacking.
“We’re trying our best to build that club, we’re trying our best to build that team. You’ll have bumps and bruises along the way, but I think the consistency of our results since the first eight games has been a lot more consistent.
“We’re never happy, there’s no happiness around the club when we’re ninth in the league. We know the challenges that the league brings and the difficulty can bring.
“But like I keep telling everyone, the league campaign is 46 games, it’s not 17, 19, 23 or 31, it’s 46 and until you get to that 46th game, there’s no bouquets or anything handed out. We’ll just keep working our hardest to get to where we want to be.”
With so many players having made a case for their inclusion in recent weeks, is it becoming harder to pick his team?
“One hundred per cent that's difficult,” he said. “I think the biggest challenge I'm trying to set the players is that over a period of time we don't remember individual games, but we remember every type of success we can bring the club.
“So to carry that we're going to need all the squad, we're going to need the squad behind each other and you can only imagine the difficulty of leaving player A, B or C out.
“It is difficult, but as our supporters have seen, the lads are probably speaking about it, they are that desperate to play.
“As a manager, you don't want to take that fire out of them. It's hard when we have got some good players now.
“As a club, we look around our squad and go, ‘Yeah, we have got good players, we know we haven't been successful yet’, but I think you'd have to be a fool to say our club hasn't grown.”
Cook says the players will know who is playing today: “I think when I try and outline plans at the start of a season, a lot of the time our teams are picked on a Thursday and the lads will know the team by Thursday, and I always think that allows the disappointment to go by the time Saturday comes.
“I look back historically and I think managers used to pick teams at 2pm on a Saturday – imagine doing that today, you wouldn't know what team to pick!
“There are disappointments for the players, the team will be picked this morning, we're going to train this morning [before travelling to the North-East] and our lads will know, and the subs will be picked this morning.
“I try and get everything out the way as quickly as I can and then if a lad ever wants to speak to me, my office is open every day Monday to Saturday from very early to very late.
“So if lads want to discuss anything with me, the door is always open, but we try and have the respect at the start of a season where if we do change a team it's through continuous conversations rather than one conversation about tomorrow’s game.
“I think the lads have respected that really well. We know there are disappointments, our fans would not be very happy if they knew a player was happy not playing and I can assure them our players want to play, and that's great credit to the players.”
Walton appears certain to continue in goal with Janoi Donacien, fresh from signing his new deal at right-back.
Cook could continue with Bailey Clements at left-back with Hayden Coulson not having been involved since suffering a knock at Wycombe and Matt Penney having been rested for the last two matches.
George Edmundson and Toto Nsiala look set to return at the centre of the defence having missed the FA Cup replay win at Oldham on Tuesday.
Skipper Sam Morsy and Lee Evans are again likely to be the central midfielders, also having been left out for the trip to Boundary Park.
Macauley Bonne, another absentee against the Latics, will be back as the lone out-and-out striker with Cook having options behind him.
Scott Fraser could come in on the left with Kyle Edwards the alternative option, while Sone Aluko and Wes Burns are the choices on the right.
Cook will again have to choose between Conor Chaplin and Bersant Celina for the number 10 role, perhaps opting for the Kosovan with Chaplin having started at Oldham.
Blues fans are again travelling in numbers with Town having sold their entire 2,000 allocation for the fixture.
Black Cats manager Johnson admits his team has been going through a difficult period and believes facing the Blues is a good fixture to be facing.
“It’s been a tough couple of weeks,” he told the Sunderland Echo. “You don’t like having that feeling of not winning football matches. You have to be honest enough to say that we’ve let people down.
“It’s a great game for us. Ipswich have improved really well. They didn’t have the best of starts but look where they are now.
“When you’ve had as many games as I’ve had as a player and a manager you’re going to have these scenarios. I’ve always maintained that passion has to be channelled.”
He added: “As a manager you always feel at the mercy of the footballing gods but I’ve got a strong belief in the players and the project and what we can do. I’m confident in what we can change and what we can improve.”
Sunderland have recalled keeper Anthony Patterson from a loan spell at National League Notts County due to second-choice glovesman Lee Burge suffering a hip flexor problem.
Former Republic of Ireland international Aiden McGeady is back having been suspended following a red card in the 5-1 thrashing at Rotherham at the end of last month and having suffered with a hamstring problem.
The Black Cats’ 10-goal top scorer Ross Stewart has been back in training this week having been hampered by a shoulder problem which requires injections.
Historically, the sides are evenly matched with Town having won 23 of the games between the teams (23 in the league) and Sunderland 23 (21) with eight (eight) having ended in draws.
At Portman Road in January, Charlie Wyke’s goal in first-half injury time saw Sunderland to a 1-0 victory over 10-man Town, the Blues having been reduced in number early on after Kayden Jackson was red-carded.
Jackson caught Bailey Wright with a studs-high challenge in the 10th minute before Wyke’s goal from Max Power’s cross from the right won the three points for the visitors, while full debutant loanee Luke Thomas spurned Town’s best chance in the second half.
The teams met most recently at the Stadium of Light in November last year when Andre Dozzell was controversially sent off as the Blues were beaten 2-1 by the Wearsiders with former Blues skipper Grant Leadbitter winning the game with a late penalty.
The Black Cats took the lead on eight via Wyke but Jack Lankester levelled for Town seven minutes before the break and the Blues were on top on the second half until Dozzell was harshly dismissed for a 72nd-minute challenge on Leadbitter, who netted the winner from the spot 12 minutes later after Mark McGuinness had been adjudged to have handled, also in contentious circumstances.
Peter Reid, who began working as a consultant to manager Paul Cook last month, was manager of Sunderland between 1995 and 2002.
Saturday’s referee is Tom Nield from West Yorkshire, who has shown 63 yellow cards and one red in 14 games so far this season.
Nield’s last Town match was the 0-0 home draw with the MK Dons in March in which he booked only Flynn Downes and Armando Dobra.
Prior to that Nield, who is a senior nurse/matron with the Acute & Emergency Service at the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, officiated in the Blues’ 1-0 win at Hull City in February in which he booked Nsiala, Myles Kenlock, Keanan Bennetts and two Tigers.
Before that he took control of the 0-0 draw with Oxford at the Kassam Stadium in 2019/20 when he took the players off for 15 minutes due to monsoon conditions and booked Gwion Edwards and one home player.
Nield’s only other Blues match was the 4-0 Leasing.com Trophy victory over Gillingham at Portman Road in which he yellow-carded Emyr Huws and two Gills.
Squad from: Hladky, Walton, Holy, Donacien, Vincent-Young, Clements, Penney, Edmundson, Nsiala, Burgess, Woolfenden, Morsy, Evans, Harper, El Mizouni, Carroll, Fraser, Burns, Chaplin, Celina, Edwards, Bonne, Pigott, Barry, Jackson, Norwood.
Photo: Matchday Images
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