Sunderland – Meeting the opposition.
Tranmere’s last preseason game, where supporters will be allowed to watch, ahead of a campaign which kicks off on August 7th at Prenton Park against Walsall will be played in the very same stadium this Tuesday evening.
It’ll be a test as the visitors, who are managed by Lee Johnson, are one of the best sides in the division above Rovers and will be looking to keep their gaffer’s minds ticking as they also look towards the August kick off. Tranmere manager Micky Mellon has described this friendly fixture as a challenge similar to ones that they will expect in the upcoming months after victories on the road against Warrington and Stalybridge Celtic.
I had the great pleasure of speaking to Malcolm Dugdale, from Sunderland’s biggest and best fansite and podcast Roker Report, who told me all about his experiences as a fan and answered a range of questions relevant to the game itself.
How long have you been a Sunderland supporter and how did you first come across the club?
I was born and raised in Sunderland for most of my youth, so I have always been a fan, though I first became actively interested in the club and its fortunes in the late 70s and early 80s. I was a schoolboy goalkeeper myself, so my early heroes were Barry Siddall and Chris Turner, as well as of course Jimmy Montgomery, hero of 1973. Stan Cummings and Gary Rowell were my early idols at the other end of the pitch.
As a Sunderland fan you must’ve experienced a lot of highs and lows, the club has spent some time dining in the Premier League! However, what are your best and worst moments whilst following the club and how does this current period fare with others?
The best times I recall were between 1999 and 2001 when we finished 7th in the Premier league two seasons in a row (and were very unlucky to not get a UEFA slot, as many did back then with that kind of performance). The days when Kevin Phillips was a rampant and unstoppable scoring machine alongside Quinny and co, winning the European Golden Boot with 30 goals…great times. The worst moment has to be the confirmation of our double drop in spring of 2018. Continuing to be an SAFC fan through all that has been challenging, but where I was born, you follow your team through thick and thin. Lets just say the last 3 seasons have been pretty hard going, but there are some reasons to be cheerful starting to emerge, so hopefully this current period is soon a time of positive change after a real lull.
Random fact about Sunderland?
Sunderland is home to the National Glass Centre, as the city has had significant involvement in the glass making industry for many generations past. You can go in and see glass blowing demonstrations, and learn all sorts of stuff related to the craft. Just like ship building and coal mining, the region is very proud of its industrial contributions to the nation’s economy and its working class history (as are places like the Wirral and the wider Merseyside), and it’s nice that things like the glass centre celebrate those past industries and the contribution Sunderland made to it.
Going into this upcoming campaign, what are your current expectations and how do they fare with those of last summer?
Last summer we had a manager who I did not really believe in, in Phil Parkinson, and a team who didn’t seem to click. Right now, we have a man in Lee Johnson who at least seems to have a good coaching approach and a set of tactics and strategies that he wants to try to establish and run with, alongside his football leadership team. My hopes are top two, as I am a little fed up with the whole playoff experience, and those hopes are the same as last season. I hope we fare better than last time, maintaining a push for the top two, as we dropped off badly at the end of last season.
Lee Johnson is the current manager of Sunderland, he was appointed last year and has since went on to bring the Papa John’s Trophy back to the Stadium of Light after beating Tranmere at Wembley. What are your thoughts about him and how do they compare to those of others? Do you think he is the man that will take the club back up to the Championship?
Johnson did well helping us break the Wembley hoodoo (we hadn’t won there since ‘73) but is yet to prove himself as the coach to take us up. He is a step up on Parky, but he didn’t manage to hold on to a good chance of promotion late last season. He did inherit most of the squad from past managers, so he got a bit of a hall pass there from some. That challenge and the short period of transfer limitations from the salary cap approach limited Johnson somewhat to build the side to push on. He has no excuses this season, so hopefully he can now build his own squad and really make it work. I do think he will make a decent championship coach too – he has worked there before.
Who are the owners of Sunderland and what are your thoughts on them?
The majority shareholder is Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, son of Robert, who was the majority shareholder of Olympic Marseille from 1996, up till his death. Kyril is a very wealthy but quite young club owner at 23-24 years old, but since he has come in he has really made his mark. He has brought in a director of sport, a head coach (Johnson) and other key appointments such as heads of sports data and analysis, recruitment and other areas. He is way more present around the club than previous billionaire owners like Ellis Short, and I personally am hopeful he is here for the long term, hoping to take us back up the leagues again. Time will tell but initial signs give me optimism.
Although they may not play given that this is a friendly in which there is a difference of qualities coming up against each other, who are your danger men and potential one’s to watch? How do you think the management team will approach this game? How has the club’s summer been this far?
The coach has mentioned that he will be giving some players the night off – we go again against Hull on Friday, so he will want to avoid any injuries, and in his approach he will want to see more of some of the lads with less pre-season minutes before the season starts. Elliot Embleton has been great since his return from Blackpool. He helped seal promotion for them (through the play offs) last term while on loan from our squad, achieving something the rest of the SAFC squad didn’t. Jack Diamond has been showing great signs pre season too, using his great pace with a little more control than in the past. If McGeady plays, he will hurt any team at this level, but I would be surprised if he got more than a half. Gooch has looked sharp too but is protecting a slight hamstring tweak so may be rested. If Kimpioka plays, your defence will have a nightmare predicting what he will do next (I am not sure he knows). Ross Stewart is up front, and will get goals soon, though he hasn’t scored yet in the friendliest so far. His movement is way better than Wykes was last season, but he needs to get a few in during pre season, for confidence purposes if nothing else. The summer pre season has gone OK so far – 2 wins and one draw, 7 scored and one conceded. It probably doesn’t mean a lot, but getting into winning habits is a good way to go.
Having a quick look at your recruitment, it seems that there has been a massive summer in terms of outgoings and incomings, a noticeable outgoing being the transfer of striker Charlie Wyke to Wigan Athletic on a free transfer. What are your thoughts on this summer’s transfer business and what else is needed to do?
The summer started with a major exodus, which was a ballsy move by Johnson. Inbound it has been quieter than most fans wanted, but there are signs of more players to come in, and what we have brought in looks a step up in quality from the released list. I’d like another 4 players in before we face Wigan first game out. Not sure we will achieve that, and to be honest 5-6 or more would be ideal. We need some full backs, and we need another striker. If we get those positions covered off pre Wigan I will take that, but I fully expect transfer business to carry on till the window closes. Johnson knows this is a marathon not a sprint, and we know all too well that lots of decent players do not automatically make a good team.
What are your thoughts on Tranmere as a club in general and opponents on Tuesday? Who do you think will be the key men throughout the friendly fixture?
Tranmere are a good club, who play decent football and deserve respect. The final was close, with only a very well created and well taken goal making the difference. I don’t think the performance on Tuesday night will reflect how either team will do in the league, but I hope both coaches learn a lot about squad members and tactic options, to prepare them for the season. I have some good friends in the Wirral, and I spent a few good nights out there with them in the past, on away day weekends. I wish them well with the league, and hope they continue to build towards the top half of the table, maybe more, as the style of football they are trying to play is way better than a lot of sides in this division. I’ve touched on the key Sunderland players above, and I have no idea who the Tranmere team will be, but I would like to see the SAFC midfield run the show, and Stewart to break his pre season duck.
This summer Lee Johnson has oversaw and completed a great amount of transfer business at Sunderland as the club aims to reach promotion back to the Championship.
Amongst those that have been kept at the Stadium of Light? Jack Diamond, a 21-year-old winger who has ‘used his pace with a little more control this pre-season’ and is ready to cause problems to all manner of opposition in the upcoming season.