Guy Pearson*, introduced to Salut! Sunderland by the first Who are You? candidate of the season, his follow Derby County fan Nick Britten, does not think the Rams are good enough for the Premier League. He is not not even confident of making the playoffs, despite the hotel rooms he and his pals booked back in January to be handy for the final. Viewed from our position, his troubles seem piffling. It will come as no consolation to Sunderland supporters to hear that Guy does think we’ll improve on our current position by the end of the season – he predicts we’ll finish second bottom. Stand by for a thoughtful interview with a realistic supporter who knows his stuff.
And on links between our clubs, Guy remembers that extraordinary Mart Poom equaliser while we remind him of a SuperKev hat trick at Pride Park …
Salut! Sunderland: you have let things slip a little but are still in the top six. Is a play-off place the best you can hope for and are you able to get into the Premier League by that route?
Guy Pearson: Derby fans have come to dread the start of February – as it always seems to signal the start of a slide down the table. Big changes in the summer included the Premier League departures of Tom Ince and Will Hughes so a sluggish start was predictable.
Rowett focused on making us more solid and his pragmatic approach paid dividends results-wise, even if we’re no longer so good to watch. We went on an unbelievable run from November onwards and I say “unbelievable” because we were rarely convincing, even during a string of results that took us up to second for a six-week spell.
Realistic fans will admit we were overachieving in a big way – so the fact we have since dropped off the pace, as you say, came as little surprise. The team was crying out for an injection of quality in January, particularly in the wide areas of our 4-2-3-1. But the only permanent incoming was Cameron Jerome.
I think we’ll look back at that as a massive opportunity missed.
We’ve remained difficult to beat – a fact illustrated by a record of only seven defeats in 37 league games (as I write this).
But progress has been halted by far too many draws, we’ve slipped to fifth and are now very much looking over our shoulders at the chasing pack.
Automatic promotion is already a distant dream and many, including me, are worried even about a place in the play-offs – particularly with the likes of Middlesbrough, Preston and Bristol City now breathing down our necks.
A play-off place is very much the best we can hope for – but I wouldn’t be confident at all of getting through them. The team, in my view at least, is not yet good enough for promotion and remains a work in progress.
We may be the worst team in the Championship, and results currently say we are, but do you agree with what seems a growing belief that Villa are the best?
I don’t tend to watch many other Championship games on the TV, so I can’t claim to be an expert. We beat Villa at our place in December and they looked nothing special – though they did have had a few out through injury at the time.
They’ve come good with a magnificent run and Steve Bruce has certainly silenced his critics, which included many of the Villa fans. Wolves were the best team I’ve seen at Pride Park this season – they were far too good for us back in August – and Fulham were impressive when they beat us a couple of weeks ago.
Cardiff’s form is a surprise to me, although Warnock does seem to somehow sprinkle magic promotion dust wherever he goes, despite being a complete git.??
Matej Vydra’s goals have been massively important for you but I imagine Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies are also important players. Who, for you, has been doing the business for Derby and who needs to step up?
Yes, Vydra’s goals have been absolutely key, but Davies has been the player of the season for me. He has been the rock of a defence which has been largely impressive throughout.
I was concerned when he arrived that he’d be well past his best by now, but he’s stepped up in virtually every game and formed an impressive central partnership with Richard Keogh. Goalkeeper Scott Carson went through a spell when nothing could get past him and produced some fantastic performances which led to a string of clean sheets during that good run.
Huddlestone was an ever-present until a harsh red card in the East Midlands derby – he has never had great pace, but has exceptional touch and his passing ability is rarely matched at this level.
There have been several issues elsewhere. Craig Forsyth and Marcus Olsson have both been in indifferent form and neither has been able to truly nail down a position at left-back, while Tom Lawrence has been a big disappointment for me.
He was in great form at Ipswich last season and much was expected after a £5m summer move, but he has been poor for us so far. The wide forward positions have been an issue for a while and Rowett said he tried – and failed – to address that in January.
Andi Weimann has been entirely inconsistent in that role as was Jonny Russell before we went to the USA in January. We were linked with a loan move for Ademola Lookman from Everton, but brought in only Jerome and attacking midfielder Kasey Palmer, from Chelsea, on loan.
Ikechi Anya had been overlooked for much of the season but has come into the reckoning in the search for more creativity. Palmer has been impressive, often from the bench, as Rowett seems unable to trust him from the start.
We have also struggled up front. David Nugent and Jerome have become the only options since an injury ruled out Sam Winnall, on loan from Sheffield Wednesday. The trouble is neither are particularly good – an area that surely must be addressed in the summer.
I wouldn’t know Candy Crush Saga if it fell in my soup but it has made your owner Mel Morris a rich man. Has he the resources and commitment to lead Derby back to the top flight and keep them there, and is Gary Rowett the right manager for the next level?
Morris is a lifelong fan of the club and has already made a huge investment, but whether he has the appetite to spend much more of his Candy cash – after seeing a fair chunk of it wasted on players who are not good enough – remains to be seen.
Previous significant buys – including Jacob Butterfield and Nick Blackman – have failed to deliver a return and he couldn’t be blamed if he’s become wary of throwing good money after bad. After pushing the boat out a little too far, the club has been hamstrung by good old FFP. But shedding some of the highest earners, including Chris Martin, Russell and Jason Shackell, might well have created some wriggle room for the summer.
It will probably depend on whether Rowett can do some wheeling and dealing. But Morris does seem to have the commitment to follow through with his promise of leading us into the Premier League (one day!)
I might well be in a small minority, but I haven’t been won over by Rowett just yet. I wasn’t convinced, as others were, when we were second and my view hasn’t particularly changed since.
Performances this season, bar obvious exceptions, have been poor to watch – even when we were winning. We are often happy to sit back and let opponents have the majority of possession – it’s often all a bit too negative.
But we have certainly become more solid during his 12-month tenure and it’s fair to say progress has been made. We gave Rowett a fat new contract when he was being linked with the Stoke job in January, but – for me – it’s too early to say whether he’s the right man long term.
Things might change next year, of course, and I hope they do – one way or the other.?
So many links between our clubs from Brian Clough and Colin Todd to Kevin Phillips and Danny Higginbotham. Who stands out from personal or handed-down knowledge?
Mart Poom was the best goalkeeper I have seen in my time following Derby, which includes the era when Peter Shilton was here. He was magnificent in a great team at the time, although I wasn’t so impressed with him when he scored that goal from a corner for you lot at Pride Park.
Marco Gabbiadini was excellent for Derby between 1992 and 1997, having made his name at Roker Park of course. He scored some cracking goals in partnership with Paul Kitson – while big bad Mick Harford made more than 50 appearances for us again in the 90s. The less said about the likes of Danny Dichio and Emerson Thome the better!
What have been your own highs and lows as a Derby supporter?
You always look back fondly on your time as a young fan and back-to-back promotions in 1986 and 1987 were certainly a massive highlight.
Bobby Davison was my hero back then and the star of an Arthur Cox team that also featured Phil Gee, John Gregory, Nigel Callaghan, Gary Micklewhite and Rob Hindmarch (also formerly Sunderland). One of my favourite memories is a match against Crystal Palace at the Baseball Ground in 1996. We had to win to seal automatic promotion, behind Sunderland in fact, and Robbie Van Der Laan’s header was just enough to get us over the line.
Jim Smith went on to build a fantastic Premier League team which put the likes of Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal to the sword every other week. The playoff final victory against West Bromwich Albion in 2006 was another highlight, though the season that followed – under Billy Davies and then Paul Jewell – was a complete embarrassment and the lowest I’ve ever felt watching the Rams.?
Who are the finest players you have seen in your colours – or wish you’d been around to see?
Dean Saunders was absolutely brilliant for Derby and was the stand-out performer for several seasons in the 90s. We finished fifth in the Premier League with him and Paul Goddard at the front of a team led by Mark Wright, who was also a fantastic player.
Francesco Baiano and Stefano Eranio were later brought in from Italy by Jim Smith and were two of the best I’ve seen in the last 20 years. They teamed up alongside Paulo Wanchope, who was fantastic to watch – if purely for his unpredictability. He was the sort of striker who could either beat four players on one amazing run, as he did for a fabulous goal at Old Trafford on his debut – or beat himself.
The likes of Archie Gemmill, Gerry Daly and Bruce Rioch were magnificent midfielders in their day, but I wish I had been old enough to watch the club’s top-flight title wins in 1972, under Clough, and then 1975 under Dave Mackay. I’d pay damn good money to be able to watch Charlie George’s hat-trick in a 4-1 European Cup win against Real Madrid in 1975 – though not so much the return leg which we lost 5-1!
And who should have been allowed nowhere near the Baseball Ground or Pride Park?
How long have you got? I can think of any number of players who should never have worn the white shirt, but Mikkel Beck – a completely useless striker signed from Middlesbrough in 1999 – and Conor Doyle – a slow, overweight and utterly awful American brought in by Nigel Clough 10 years later – stand out among the dross.
Did you see our sharp decline coming and, assuming we go down again, will our immediate future be closer to a Portsmouth or a Villa/Leeds scenario?
I didn’t see it coming at all – but I admit I had no insight into the real story of last season.
It’s easy to assume teams that are relegated from the Premier League have something of a head start the following season thanks to the parachute payment – but it’s obviously never as simple as that. The combination of vastly overpaid players on lengthy contracts with no relegation clause is a deadly cocktail.
Looking very much from the outside, it seems as though Coleman has been handed a poison chalice – with no quick fix. Surely he’ll be able to address the situation in the summer though – and a club as big as Sunderland will surely bounce straight back?
Salut! Sunderland couldn’t resist adding this little gem of a clip
Other thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Chris Coleman?
I thought Coleman did a fantastic job with Wales and, no disrespect intended, I was surprised he didn’t wait until a more attractive proposition came along.
Now he’s in a tough situation, it will be interesting to see how he copes – presuming he’s given the chance to rebuild in the summer. The club is obviously hugely well supported, but seems – from the outside (this bit might hurt) – to be living in the shadow of its rivals from up the road.
I’m not a fan of the new “one size fits all” stadium designs and, though I’ve never had the pleasure, yours looks like a daddy version of our own. Bring back the Baseball Ground and Roker Park I say – and to hell with the prawn sandwich brigade.
Hand on heart, where will our two clubs finish this season?
Sorry, I can’t see Sunderland getting out of the mess they’ve made of this season. A team that has struggled all season doesn’t often find four or five wins out of nowhere in the last seven or eight games. I’ll predict a second-bottom finish though – Burton will surely take the dubious honour with their shocking home record.
Derby? Our run-in includes games at Wolves and Villa – and at home to Cardiff after this week’s postponement – so it’s still in our own hands. But with the way we’ve been misfiring up front for a month or more, I fear we might well slip out of the playoff positions and be overtaken in the final furlong by teams in better form.
Other than missing out on the potential of a great weekend at Wembley (we have had hotels room booked since January!), I’m not too fussed.
This team is nowhere near Premier League standard, despite what Rowett – and some fans – would have you believe. We would need wholesale changes in the summer to stand even a chance of survival – and I just don’t think we would do that. Rowett seems too stubborn.
The Dele Alli question: Pochettino says diving hardly matters. Is he right, or right off his head?
Players who dive should receive automatic bans, even if found guilty by retrospective evidence. It’s cheating in the worst sense of the word and persistent offenders should be shot. Pochettino should also be banned for coming out with such garbage.
Would I mind if Dele Alli dived to win England the penalty that won the World Cup or if Cameron Jerome (!) was sent sprawling by a blade of grass against Forest? Hmm, you’ve got me there.
Your assessment of the standard of refereeing at Championship level?
Too often it’s not good enough. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but there are far too many refs at this level who aspire to be in the Premier League and seem keen to make a name for themselves.
What I find really irritating is the standard of assistant referees in this division, who are generally beyond awful.
It happens week in, week out. There’ll be an incident right in front of them, but they’ll just stand there looking stupid and let the ref make a decision for them. It winds me up no end.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
Yeh, I’ll be there. Friends and I meet up in Chiquitos – the Mexican restaurant not far from the ground. We have season tickets in the East Stand. It’s a Friday night telly job, so I’m not sure how many Sunderland fans will make the trip.
I’m obviously hoping we’ll have returned to winning ways by then and, though I’m fully expecting a tight game. It’s bound to be horribly ugly, but I’ll go for a 1-0 home win thanks to a corner that drops in off Jerome’s backside.
* Guy Pearson on himself: I’m 52, married with two children – 26 and 18 – and a granddaughter who’s eight months. I’m news editor at a weekly newspaper and have been in journalism and PR for more than 30 years. I’ve been a season ticket holder for many years, both at Pride Park and the BBG.
My first Rams experience was back in 1977 when a then ageing Kevin Hector (having returned from a spell in America) scored in a 2-0 win against QPR. There have been a lot of tears shed since then – most of them not in a good way.
Interview: Colin Randall