Royal Blue Mersey had the pleasure of interviewing Luke, a writer at fellow SB Nation blog The Roker Report about what's been going on at the Stadium of Light this season.
RBM -Welcome to the SB Nation family Luke, tell us a bit about yourself, and how you came to be a Sunderland supporter?
TRR - Thank you very much! Like most fans I didn't really have much of a choice in supporting the club. I grew up in Sunderland and my family were all huge fans, so I got indoctrinated into it all pretty early. I went to my first match when I was six years old and haven't stopped supporting the club since. I had a season ticket for several season (including during the dismal 05/06 Premier League campaign when we ended on 15 points), but had to give it up when I moved away from home for university. I'm now having to support the team from overseas as I'm currently living in Gothenburg in the country known as Seb Larsson-Land.
RBM - Margaret Thatcher is dead, and Martin O'Neill is gone. Two things I really didn't expect to see any time soon. Your thoughts on both?
TRR - Haha, I should probably hold back my views on the former. Needless to say she's not very popular among residents of Sunderland, something I think most Everton fans can appreciate. On a personal level I'm pretty much opposed to everything she stood for. I wouldn't say I was 'glad' when she died, but I certainly wasn't crying into my celebratory pint either.
As for Martin O'Neill, I was as surprised as everyone when I found out he'd been sacked. No Sunderland fan was expecting it, even if there were a few who were hoping it would happen. Once I'd gotten over the surprise however, I started to realise it was probably the correct decision to let him go. The team has been absolutely awful over the previous couple of months, showing absolutely no attacking intent or creativity, and always looking just a little dodgy at the back. His training methods appeared to be very antiquated, and the team were beginning to look extremely unfit. It really looked as if football had moved on during his 18 months out prior, and there was nothing he could do to catch up. While I was a supporter of O'Neill's throughout his regime, the truth is it just wasn't going to work out, and I'm utterly convinced Sunderland would've gone down had we stuck with him. There's been a significant improvement since his departure.
RBM - What do you feel are the weaknesses in this Sunderland side? How much money do you think Paulo Di Canio gets to fix these?
TRR - Hard to know where to start really. Firstly, the squad is far too short in numbers. O'Neill let too many players go in January leaving us very light. At one point, with Steven Fletcher's injury, and with Connor Wickham on loan at the time, Danny Graham was our only recognised striker, and he was really under-performing at the time. Our centre-halves are vulnerable to pace, while our midfield is incredibly light-weight without Lee Cattermole in it. Generally speaking our creative players (Sessegnon, Johnson) have really under-performed this season, but there's been some signs of improvement there lately under Di Canio.
As for how much money the board will spend, our Chief Executive Margaret Byrne said before O'Neill left that money would be made available in the summer, and I can't imagine that's changed since his departure. I'd expect another 20-25 million to be available, but it'll possibly be the last time in a while we'll see such huge pre-season spending from Sunderland. The biggest change may come in the structure of the club, as it looks a certainty that a Director of Football will come in this summer who'll work with Di Canio, and a move to a new business model.
RBM - The Black Cats are hovering right about the relegation area. What does their remaining schedule look like, and what are your thoughts?
TRR - Before last weekend, I would've been fairly pessimistic about our chances, but that win against Newcastle has changed everything. The whole city is buzzing at the moment after the manner in which we beat our local rivals, and confidence is the highest it's been in some time. The run-in isn't the easiest, but we still have winnable games at home to Stoke and Southampton, and away to Villa. If we perform anything like we did against Newcastle in those three games we'll be in no trouble, and I'd fancy us to take the 5 or 6 points we need to secure our Premier League status for another season.
RBM - Are there any players who might want to leave due to Di Canio's abrasive style? Who will they be targeting during the offseason to bring in?
TRR - So far the players seem to have responded very well to Di Canio, but obviously it's early days and it's not hard to imagine that could quickly change. He's a very tough taskmaster in training, and he might rub some of them up the wrong way, but I can't imagine too many players will be keen to leave for those reasons just yet. More than likely Di Canio will quickly get rid of those players that don't respond well to his training methods. He puts a strong emphasis on fitness, which will likely mean Titus Bramble will be straight out the door, a prospect that will no doubt delight our fans.
As for players coming in, there hasn't been a lot of strong links so far. Di Canio has said recently that one of his main priorities will be a striker to deal with the shortage of players up front, and we'll need to add a bit of steel to the midfield with Cattermole's injuries/suspension record making him unreliable. I'd also expect us to be linked to a lot of Italian players, and a lot of African players, due to our strong links to the continent.
RBM - Finally, your score prediction for Saturday's game? Who do you think will shine for either side?
TRR - Marouane Fellaini always plays a blinder against Sunderland, so I'd expect him to cause us a lot of problems. If Miralles tries another one of his runs against our back four he could also get a lot of joy. As for Sunderland, the man to watch out for is Stephane Sessegnon. He was nothing short of magnificent against Newcastle, and he looks a lot more direct than he's been all season, as he starts to make up for his under-whelming campaign. At the other end of the pitch, Simon Mignolet in goal has been outstanding this season, so he's also capable of playing a blinder and keeping the goals out.
After last weekend, a lot of Sunderland fan are extremely optimistic about this one. Personally I'm a little bit more reserved. Everton are a very good team, and considering our god-awful record against you, I'd be happy with a point. Of course Di Canio isn't go to let the team rest on last week's performance and he'll have them completely focused. Overall, I think I'll go for a 1-1 draw.