Ahead of tonight's massive game against fellow struggler's Reading, we caught up with Royals writer Jonny Williams from The Tilehurst End to get his thoughts on the game.
It's been a season of mixed fortunes for Reading so far. How do you think you are doing, and what are/were your expectations?
Jonny Williams: Our performances really do change from game to game - and sometimes even half to half. Against Fulham we were fantastic in the first 45, then capitulated in the second and had to sneak a draw with a last minute equaliser. Same story in THAT game against Arsenal (who we face again this weekend...). For whatever reason, we can't close games out - I think if the match ended at half-time we'd be in the top half. But the confidence, or the energy, or the ability just isn't there at the moment. I expected us to stay up, possibly a "40 points" or last day of the season job, but that's looking increasingly unlikely.
There have been rumours about McDermott being sacked? Could someone else do a better job? Or do you have the right man in charge.
JW: The entire fanbase will have a different opinion on this. Brian worked miracles getting us up to the Premier League, let alone winning the thing. We played counter-attacking football at its finest - defensively organised and lethal in possession, as the 4-2 win at West Ham and 3-1 at Southampton would testify. But the Premier League is a whole different kettle of fish, and that's what I think has gone wrong for McDermott. We seem to be playing the same way, and teams are far more skilled to find a way through our defence. Add to that the fact that the squad hasn't really been improved but just supplemented (45 starts from 105 for his new charges) and it's no surprise - the fact that Jay Tabb, who barely got a start in the Championship, is being run rings around is no surprise.
Could another manager do a better job? Not with this squad! But again that falls with Brian, or Director of Football Nicky Hammond, or even Anton Zingarevich, our new owner. He brought in Pavel Pogrebnyak on big wages but he has been disappointing so far. Danny Guthrie has been involved in more dressing-room bust-ups than matches this season (and, I'm hearing, won't be involved again for that reason tonight). To be fair to McDermott though, injuries to some of our key players haven't helped the cause either. If the money is there in January you would think it'll be spent, but whether it's by McDermott or another manager nobody knows. Our chairman has publicly backed Brian, so I'd expect he'll be here for a little while yet, possibly the end of the season. He got us up, but it's a little frustrating to see that his inexperience at this level is showing up.
Scoring goals hasn't been a problem, but conceding has. Is it as simple as that?
JW: Nail on the head! We've been winning in 8 of our 15 PL matches, but only held on for one win (against Everton, of all teams). The second half seems to be a whole different proposition for us - we sit back, pump it forward down the channels and hope for our strikers to make something happen - and invariably it doesn't work. One consolation is that we've generally only lost by one goal - but it still goes down as a loss of course.
You were 4-0 against Arsenal, and had Manchester United on the ropes too... Is it more exciting or frustrating being a Reading fan at the moment?
JW: Frustrating, for sure. Most supporters will tell you that even at 4-0 against Arsenal we weren't sure we'd see that game out, and so it proved... We've led against Chelsea (until an offside Fernando Torres equalised), we've led against Manchester United, we've led and won against Everton so the moments of thrill are certainly there. But I'd prefer us to get a gritty 1-0 win against Norwich than stack a lead against Man Utd. Some of our performances have been downright dire, too. Saturday at Southampton was one of the worst games for the Royals this season; even more disappointing after our heroics there last year that all but sealed us the title.
Both teams have been a game behind compared to the rest of the teams in the Premier League thanks to the rain in the North East. It's become a bit of an excuse for Sunderland's poor start, do Reading fans think of it in that way?
JW: I'm not sure that's even come into our thinking! It was a strange start, especially as we played Chelsea in that first-week gap thanks to their Super Cup entry. So we played 2 matches in the first 4 days of the season, then no more for 3 weeks, which didn't help us get into a flow. I don't think it would be an excuse but it would have been nice to get into the flow of the season, I suppose. Certainly a trip up to the North East, in midweek, off the back of that performance at the weekend won't have many Royals fans licking their lips.
Who should we be concerned about coming up against tonight? And are there any weak spots we could look to exploit?
JW: Our main threat in the last few games has been Sean Morrison, a giant of a centre-back with a bullet header. He's injured, so last year's player of the season Alex Pearce will come in for him at the back. Nicky Shorey has been a revelation in his second stint with the Royals and so I genuinely think our best chances will come from his set-pieces, which is never a good sign! On his day captain Jobi McAnuff can be devastating, much like Adam Johnson he likes to run at defenders and cut in onto his preferred foot.
And is there anyone in the Sunderland team who you are worried about playing against?
JW: As mentioned above, Adam Johnson has long been a player I've admired, and I'm amazed he hasn't nailed down an England spot on the left flank as just about our only decent left-footed winger. He'll probably line up against Shorey which makes things slightly more bearable, so whoever you have on your left-wing should have fun against either Shaun Cummings or Chris Gunter, both of whom have been decidedly dodgy at right-back this season. I've always been a big fan of Seb Larsson too. Just hope Steven Fletcher is out!
Is this already a 'must-win' game for you? And us?
JW: If only for the confidence levels, yes for both teams. After this we've got Arsenal and Man City where we would confidently expect to get nothing, so picking up anything tonight would be a great bonus. For you, I think so too. Reading are definitely a team that's there to be beaten at the moment, and so if you boys don't beat us I think the calls for O'Neill's head will grow louder. A shame, as he's a manager I've always liked seeing in the dug-out.
And finally, can we get a prediction from you?
JW: I think a draw would be a good result for Reading, as long as we put in a performance to match. 2-2 probably - as ever, there'll be goals but we'll concede too easily again.sunderAhead of tonight's massive game against fellow struggler's Reading, we caught up with Royals writer Jonny Williams from The Tilehurst End to get his thoughts on the game.