Craig Samson gives his unique insight on two key Sunderland players and what makes them so good
Craig Samson built such a firm relationship with Jack Ross during their time at St Mirren that he hung up his gloves to come and join his backroom staff.
The goalkeeper had been impressed with the man-management skills of Ross and his backroom staff, who he had known for years.
So it was little surprise to him that Sunderland quickly began to turn results around and foster a feel-good atmosphere on Wearside.
That was partly built on what he experienced at St Mirren but also because he had first-hand experience of a team coming together.
Samson was between the sticks, for the first half at least, as Sunderland ran out 6-0 winners in the final game of their pre-season programme.
That was a sign that after a sluggish start, the Black Cats were getting ready for a successful campaign.
“I’ve blanked that firmly out of my mind! That was a sore one for us,” Samson said.
“The manager and James coming back, we were trying to build things so to get a bit of a spanking was not great.
“All I can say is I’ve never really wanted to be subbed off at half time in a game before but in that game I was happy enough!
“It certainly built up a bit of momentum for Sunderland and that was something I saw with Jack at St Mirren.
“Once you get that you keep chalking games off. The ride he was on at St Mirren, it wasn’t just the promotion year, when he went in they shouldn’t really have stayed up but he just won game after game.
“It’s been great to see that happening again here and hopefully the end result is the same as it was there.”
One of the key reasons Sunderland are in such a good position at the turn of the new year is that in both boxes, they have had players operating at the top of their game.
Samson, of course, was Maja’s first victim of the season.
The 20-year-old had a quiet pre-season, but a brace that afternoon sparked an extraordinary run of form.
Both finishes were of a nature that is fast becoming his trademark, taking the shot early and surprising the goalkeeper with his placement.
“All I can say about Josh is, it’s no fluke,” Samson said.
“He stays behind every day and even if it’s an empty net, he’ll smash 100 balls in.
“He’ll ask me if he can have a goalkeeper, ask me to pass balls to him to hit.
“He works so hard at it.
“He can really, really finish.
“He has a very big future ahead of him, I watch him every day, his attitude is second to none. He just loves football and just loves scoring goals.”
At the other end, Jon McLaughlin has been superb.
There was an error that he was fortunate to get away with against Bradford City against Boxing Day but that was notbale because it was the first time he has faltered this season.
Samson arrived at the club with 31-year-old in a rich vein of form and the new goalkeeper coach was eager not to disrupt too much.
McLaughlin’s quality and temperament came as no surprise.
“When I first came in, I was very conscious of the fact that, you’re not going to change everything overnight and potentially upset the balance,” Samson said.
“I spoke to Jon, Robbin [Ruiter], all the goalkeepers, and said ‘let’s carry on as we’re going and I’ll put my own stamp on things as we go along.’
“I speak to Jon about the games and goals, building that relationship. He’s been excellent, I know his old goalkeeping coach at Hearts very well and I’ve watched a lot of the games he has played in so I had a rough idea of what he’s like as a person and a goalkeeper.
“Jon has played in the Championship, the Scottish Premier, he’s not getting that Scotland recognition for nothing. I’d watched footage of the games from when I’d not been here and he’s been one of the standouts. Going forward we’ve scored a hell of a lot of goals, but when we’ve been under pressure, he’s been there. He’s been magnificent at the side of things.
“You look at the Bristol Rovers game. Credit to him because he could possibly have played on, but if he does that and can’t make the save late in the game, that maybe affects the team. He felt it was a better decision and it proved to be right.
“He’s very, very steady. Every goalkeeper makes mistakes but it’s how many can you limit through the season that determines you how good you are. Jon won’t make many. He’s a calming influence and sometimes that’s what you need. I can see that.”
Samson is also the perfect figure for McLaughlin to lean on.
The Scotland international has kept his fair share of clean sheets, but this is a side that is not always easy to defend in.
Jack Ross always looks to attack and they are the only side in the top four leagues to score in every game.
That has its challenges for a goalkeeper and it is something Samson knows well from his time as number one north of the border.
“I said to Jon, if there’s things you’re not sure about then we’ll speak about it because you’re playing well,” he said.
“That’s not been the case, to be honest.
“I think, funnily enough, playing for this manager as a goalkeeper can be a bit frustrating because we’re open.
“You could win 4-3, coming away raging because you’d given away three goals. But it’s all about the team.
“There’ll be spells in games where we might 1-0 but the way we play as a club, I used to say, it’s like basketball.
“Let’s see who has got the best attacking players and we’ll see if we can score more goals than you.
“As a goalkeeper, that can be frustrating but it’s about getting back up and he understands that. The Barnsley game is a great example of that.
“That’ll happen but he knows there will be games where he needs to make that big save so we win 1-0 and he has certainly done that so far.”
Maja’s future remains in doubt but should he stay, his goals and McLaughlin’s saves will make life an awful lot easier for Samson and the rest of the backroom team.