Phil Smith's Sunderland Q&A: Fan return, selection headaches, play-off prospects and more under the microscope

Sunderland lifted the mood on Wearside with a 3-1 win over Plymouth Argyle last weekend.

Wednesday, 5th May 2021, 12:28 pm

Attentions are now turning to the play-off campaign and in his weekly Q&A, Phil Smith has been taking questions from Sunderland fans on all club matters.

You can read his responses below….

Do you think fans will be allowed back in for the play-off home leg and if so how many?

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Sunderland boss Lee Johnson

The hope at the EFL was always that they would be able to get fans back in some capacity for the play-off campaigns.

That remains the case, but the lack of clarity at the moment reflects the fact that this will ultimately be a government decision.

The roadmap for leaving lockdown currently says that crowds of 25% or 10,000 (whichever is lower) will be allowed from May 17th.

If the government sticks to that plan (and the suggestions are that they will), then fans should be allowed back to the Stadium of Light and you would expect a ground of that size would mean it would be close to the 10,000 figure.

There are other factors in play there, though, as any decision would also be dependent on approval from the local safety advisory group.

Fingers crossed.

Wouldn’t it be great if some fans were allowed into the play off matches to show the team what they’ve been missing?

I think it would be a massive boost.

Sunderland want to play an aggressive, high-pressing game and getting a proper atmosphere in the Stadium of Light would be a big help in that.

I also just think it would bring a real freshness for the squad.

April was a painful month and it has been a real slog of a campaign at times. Getting fans back would I think just give a real welcome injection of energy to the whole place.

It’ll be an emotional day when loyal supporters can return and I agree, I really think it is something Sunderland can harness.

Do you think Lee Johnson will rotate his squad for the Northampton game on Sunday? And should he get some of the younger players involved?

There’ll definitely be some rotation, though I still think it’s important to get the win.

Going into the play-offs with consecutive victories will just lift the mood and hopefully give a feeling of freshness to the place after what was a disappointing end to the race for the top two.

If there is even the slightest doubt over Aiden McGeady or Charlie Wyke’s fitness, then the sensible thing would be to just give them an additional rest.

Last Saturday’s game showed there are players capable of stepping up and it would do no harm to get extra minutes for the likes of Ross Stewart and Jack Diamond.

I’d be tempted to rest one or two in midfield, too.

At the back, it’ll be a case of Johnson assessing where his players are in terms of their match fitness.

Conor McLaughlin’s minutes are being carefully managed, while Bailey Wright looks to be edging towards full fitness.

After playing 90 minutes last weekend, it would also be no great surprise if Denver Hume was managed through the game (particularly with Jake Vokins now available again).

So of the club’s younger players, you’d suspect Oliver Younger is the one who has the best chance of being involved.

Who do you think would be the best team to face in the play-off semi finals?

From what I’ve seen over the course of the campaign, I think Lincoln City are the best/most dangerous side of those in contention.

That might seem strange when Sunderland beat them 4-0 in December, but they should have been 2-0 up inside ten minutes.

The two recent home games were tight, good games with absolutely nothing in it.

They’ve got pace and energy and that always gives them a chance.

I thought Oxford United looked good at the Stadium of Light recently, too, and Sunderland’s eventual win clearly owed much to the red card.

Blackpool had real defensive resilience over the course of the two recent games, but were fortunate to get six points.

With Portsmouth and Charlton Athletic, you feel it’s more emotional baggage than anything else. Though Sunderland have lost to both this season, they’ve also been much the better side in the other fixture.

I think any fixture would be a tight contest but I do genuinely believe that Sunderland should be able to win the play-off campaign.

Why does Josh Scowen get a regular start and not Chris Maguire? Bristol City fans have said Johnson has his favourites.

It certainly helped Scowen at the start of Johnson’s tenure that the pair had worked together before, so he had an immediate understanding of his philosophy and demands.

More broadly, I think his regular place in the team is down to his off-the-ball attributes.

Johnson believes he is one of the best in the division in terms of his pressing and ball recoveries. Given how much he used data in his work, I suspect he could point to a lot of statistical evidence for that.

As in a few areas of the pitch, there has definitely been some inconsistency in central midfield in terms of performance level. I think that’s probably reflected in the fact that despite saying he wants to build to a 4-3-3, Johnson has rarely used that formation. In fairness, injuries have been a massive part of that.

On Maguire, his position is obviously different to Scowen’s.

Johnson has been very honest about the situation, giving Maguire the chance to leave in January.

He has a lot of forward players and actually, I think he probably feels he has had one too many.

My view was that both deserved a lot of credit for the way they handled the situation, with Maguire a really effective impact substitute through that long unbeaten run.

Could he have been used more when that form turned? Probably. But Sunderland have set out on a new path and if we are serious about wanting the club to promote young players and create a strong pathway, then in a squad of over 20 players you have to accept that someone will lose out.

Credit to Maguire for keeping himself ready, and that was a very effective cameo. He undoubtedly has played his way into contention.

Johnson addressed Maguire’s situation again after the game, and you can read his candid comments here.

Is Kyril Louis-Dreyfus's twin brother going to be involved in our club? If so I would like to see him buyout Donald and co. He does attend quite a few games.

Maurice Louis-Dreyfus has attended the vast majority of games since Kyril completed his takeover.

There has been no confirmation of any formal or informal role yet, though it’s possible that there could still be further appointments to the board.

As for the Madrox group, there has been no suggestion of any further sale of shares at this stage.

Louis-Dreyfus told a supporter collective meeting in his opening address that while he was in control, the other shareholders would support ‘as much as they can’.

Do you know if the club have submitted a licence application for SAFC Ladies to play in the FA Women's Championship?

Truthfully at this stage, no.

The deadline was yesterday lunchtime and so it may take a little while before we get a sense of exactly who has applied.

What I can say is that when the FA opened up the process (which had not been in any way a given when the campaign was curtailed), the indications behind the scenes was that Sunderland hoped to and intended to apply.

It was certainly being explored properly and the indications were that Kristjaan Speakman’s comments at a Supporter Collective Meeting, that the club wanted promotion at the earliest possible opportunity, were genuine.

The task was getting the structure right, given the step up in quality etc.

Those in the game expect very, very competitive applications from Derby County and Watford, amongst others.

Having said that, the way the criteria is weighted in favour of on-field achievement over the last two years will surely benefit Sunderland, if they do apply.

One to keep an eye on.

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