Perhaps you've heard, as I believe OsotP has been making some noise about it, but this happens to be derby week against Sunderland. Simon Walsh, and his good lads over at SBNation's own Roker Report, were kind enough to answer some questions ahead of Sunday's excited (albeit crushingly early in the morning) fixture. Given the gravity of the match, I've put my own reactions in the block quotes underneath each answer.
1. Let's begin with the man of the hour. How has the culture at Sunderland changed under Martin O'Niell? I can tell you that Newcastle fans everywhere were crushed at the firing of Steven Bruce. What has O'Niell brought to the side, and how do you expect him to build for the future?
It's gone a full 180 from the Steve Bruce era, which is quite incredible given the short space of time that O'Neill has been here. O'Neill hasn't changed a huge amount on the pitch, it's basically the same team, but now we're much more organised, and tactics have been simplified. It seems that everyone has been encouraged to play to their individual strengths. A perfect example of that would be someone like Lee Cattermole, who has been a completely different player since O'Neill came in.
As for building for the future, I think we'll continue the same style, just with improved players and options. We've got a system that works now, so why change it too much?
Obviously, as Newcastle fans, we were crushed with the firing of #DoubleAgentBruce. We lost a good member of the NUFC family that day. That being said, O'Neill has Sunderland playing absolutely cracker football, and as Simon noted, the team we play on Sunday will be a complete and total 180 from the one we faced all the way back in August. Much tougher match this time around, to be sure.
More great responses and analysis after the jump!
2. Currently at 9th and steadily climbing, where do you expect The Black Cats to finish this season? How does that stack up to your pre-season expectations?
Well pre-season we all thought we could be a top ten side, comfortably. Now however I don't think anyone's too bothered about where we finish, we're just taking each game as it comes and seeing what happens. To finish in the top ten would be nice, and quite remarkable, but the everyone's now got much more of an eye on the FA Cup.
Given their success in the FA Cup, this is totally understandable. As OsotP noted a few days ago
, Sunderland has been far more worried about staying up in the table than finishing in "respectable" position as of late. That being said, a top ten finish for both squads would only heighten the derby's prominence and excitement, so I'm begrudgingly rooting for it. Clearly, the FA Cup is going to take priority given that their final placing between 7 and 17 matters very little.
3. Not to bring up sour memories (well, OK... kind of to bring up some sour memories), but what was the reaction to Newcastle's relatively lethargic 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light earlier this season? What has the mood been like from Sunderland fans seeing their hated rivals doing so well this season?
The reaction to the derby defeat earlier this season was bad, but not too bad. We were pathetic that day, and Newcastle were just slightly better. It happens. It's been widely noted that Newcastle are doing alright this season, but from my perspective, and many others, we've genuinely not been particularly bothered by it. We've had more than enough going on with ourselves this season to really put any focus on anyone else.
I'll be honest, I asked the question with tongue firmly planted in cheek and a huge smirk on my face. That being said, it has been nice not even having to entertain the question of final finishing position between the two rivals. I was hoping that our success would get under their skin a little bit, kind of a like a puppy whose nose you rub in its own mess... though I suppose we'll just have to gloat amongst ourselves. While I admit Sunderland finishing above us would irk me, I don't think I'd care that much when juxtaposed with our overall season performance, which would always take precedence.
4. Sessegnon is clearly your iron man, but I'm curious as to who you feel has been your MVP this season? How has the lack of Asamoah Gyan affected the team (other than buffering the pocket books considerably)?
Well it would have to Sessegnon. When he plays well, everyone plays well, and there's a genuine air of excitement that anything could happen when he's in possession. Outside of Sess though, you can look at the likes of Sebastian Larsson who's scored some important goals and created plenty of chances, and on his day (which seems to be every day at the minute) James McClean can be unplayable. Meanwhile Craig Gardner, Kieran Richardson and David Vaughan are also putting in good arguments that it should be them.
Pick any of those really.
Sessegnon is obviously the player that worries me most. With Gyan on that mildly absurd loan deal, Sess is clearly the Cat's major weapon now, and he seems to have a decent back and forth with Bendtner in attack. Our back line has been... shoddy, to say the least, as of late. I think Colo can match up well with Bendtner, but with Sess and Larsson sneaking on the flanks of the attack, we could be in for some trouble unless Williamson steps up majorly.
5. Obviously Bendtner has been huge for you, and the loans of Kyrgiakos and Bridge were definitely relatively high profile landings. How likely do you think a permanent move to the club for any of the three is? What do you think their asking price will be in the summer, and do you feel the club will answer it?
I wouldn't say Bendtner has been huge to be honest, he's got a big name and reputation, but his performances have been hit and miss. He seems to be angling after a move to Russia this summer, and I don't think anyone would be particularly gutted about that.
Kyrgiakos and Bridge have barely had a sniff of action. Kyrgiakos was really just brought in as at the time we had Bramble, Brown and Kilgallon out injured, whilst Michael Turner was just returning, so we needed a body. As for Bridge, again, he's just insurance for if anything happens to Richardson.
I'd imagine if any of them were to stay, it would be Bridge and the fee would be nominal. That said though, not particularly bothered if any/all of them stay/go.
I was fascinated by this response. While Kyrgiakos hasn't suited up yet for the Cats, I still remember him as a very solid player, and I was amazed that Simon didn't want to keep him even as insurance. I was also a little surprised that he doesn't see Bendtner as important, especially given that Denmark native, while only popping in three goals, has made 17 starts up front for the Mackems. I suppose when Gyan returns all striker woes in Sunderland will be quickly forgotten. I think Bridge will probably make his stay at the Stadium of Light permanent, but we'll see how the summer ends up.
6. How are you feeling about the upcoming FA Cup Fixture v. Everton? How much emphasis would you like to see Sunderland put on the Cup now that their status is relatively safe?
With us only being one game away from a day at Wembley, and two games from a final, we've got plenty of stock invested in the FA Cup. I'm sure the players will have just as much of an eye on it as we do, especially since the 'bigger' teams keep knocking eachother out. There's every chance we can win the cup this season. If not, well we had a good run and are still the last North East team to lift some silverware.
I was fond of the dig at the end. Well played, sir. Granted, when we lift Europa Gold next year it'll be nice to rub in the Mackem's face *cough cough.* Still, he is correct that NUFC had a disappointing run in both domestic cups this year, and that Sunderland's success in the FA Cup is something for the North East to "kinda" celebrate. I also agree that O'Niell going all in on the Cup is the only logical way to go. These last few rounds should be amazing.
7. Finally, a prediction for Sunday's fixture?
I think it's one of the most evenly matched derbies in years, but obviously I have to go with a Sunderland win. I'm going to stick with what I said on our podcast - 0-0 at half-time, Tiote sent off shortly after the break. We take the lead through a John O'Shea header with 20 minutes to go, followed swiftly by Lee Cattermole picking up a second yellow. After that, it's defence against attack, and for whatever reason Newcastle will be involved in a contentious moment which isn't given and we'll walk away with all three points.
Interesting, and thorough, prediction. If Chiek gets sent off, I would agree that Newcastle would be hard pressed to come up with an answer in midfield (all respect to Dan Gosling, of course). I could also see a contentious moment brewing, though I hope it doesn't. I think this derby will be an amazing contest given Sunderland's recent run of form and the success that Newcastle has seen this season. My hope: 5-0 Magpies. A more realistic prediction though is 4-3, with both defenses struggling, and even a Sessegnon hat trick won't be enough for the Scum to overcome a brace from Ba and chips from Cisse and HBA. Howay the lads!