League One Match Preview: Sunderland (H)
Our build-up to Saturday's game with Sunderland continues with our dedicated Match Preview looking ahead to the game. Once you've read that, please check out our latest Opposition Talk Q&A with Black Cats fan Josh Edwards, and then listen to our editor Adam Stubbings' appearance on Graham Falk's WTF podcast previewing Saturday's game.
Darren Moore and his coaching staff are back, just in time for a big clash with Sunderland in the scrap for places at the top end of League One. Rovers’ two-week break from senior competitive action has allowed the squad to recharge ready for another busy run of games, but there are big issues still facing the manager in terms of his team selection going into what is sure to be a stern test in the shape of Phil Parkinson’s Black Cats.
Bursik Bounces, Lumley Signs
News broke on Thursday evening that goalkeeper Josef Bursik was returning to parent club Stoke City due to injuries suffered by both of the Potters’ senior stoppers. The loanee, who made his debut for England U21s as a Rovers player earlier in the week, is likely to go straight in to the Championship side for their game with Huddersfield Town on Saturday but it leaves Darren Moore with a major headache.
Bursik has started every league fixture for Rovers this season and deputy Louis Jones has never played a minute of League One football, so Rovers moved on Friday morning to sign QPR stopper Joe Lumley on an emergency loan deal. Lumley joins initially on a seven-day deal which will be extended on a weekly basis until January, and the regulations surrounding emergency transfers dictate that the loanee must play all games he is available for, which means academy graduate Jones has no scope to get into the side whilst Lumley is with Rovers.
This arrangement surely calls into question the club's policy of opting to go into the loan market for a goalkeeper in the first place, as they are now left in the lurch with a perenially unstable situation in a key position. It also will surely not foster competition in training if Jones knows he isn't allowed to play in the league games if he impresses. On Lumley, he has good experience at Championship level but lost his place in the QPR team to former Rovers player Seny Dieng at the start of this campaign and has already been an emergency option for League One rivals Gillingham in the last few weeks.
Elsewhere, the game may come a little too soon for a clutch of players fighting back to full fitness in the outfield ranks. Madger Gomes and Jon Taylor are nearing match fitness, whilst striker Tyreece John-Jules has returned to Cantley Park from Arsenal to further his recovery from injury but Taylor Richards is the only returning player expected to be capable of starting this weekend. Rovers sorely need these attacking reinforcements available but will have to make do with what they have for now.
Parky After Forward Firepower
Opponents Sunderland sit 7th in the League One table going into the game but are coming off the back of ignominious back-to-back home defeats, against League Two side Mansfield in the FA Cup and to poor travellers Milton Keynes last time out. Attention is turning to another potential takeover amid more malaise and criticism being aimed at the current ownership, as well as manager Phil Parkinson as the former Premier League regulars continue to struggle relative to their spending power at this level.
On the pitch, Parkinson has urged his forwards to find their shooting boots and improve the team’s poor form in front of goal, and that will surely only be emphasised further by Rovers’ goalkeeping situation. Charlie Wyke is top scorer with five goals this season, with Will Grigg continuing to struggle and new signings Aiden O’Brien and Danny Graham yet to get going in attack. Along with utility forward Chris Maguire, Sunderland have a tough choice picking a strike partner to complement the physical Wyke against Rovers.
The North East side do have defensive reinforcements back to aid their 3-5-2 formation, with Rovers fully aware of the threat posed by attacking wing-backs Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume. O’Nien has played as a makeshift centre half at times this season but should return to the right flank with Tom Flanagan and Conor McLaughlin both back from international duty with Northern Ireland, but Jordan Willis is dealing with an ongoing knee issue that flared up against Milton Keynes.
Key Battle: Lynden Lurks As Creative Spark
Former Rovers loanee Lynden Gooch is one of the true X-factor players in the Sunderland ranks, and O’Nien’s shift back to the right-hand side should allow the California native to move back into his favoured central attacking midfield role which will mean a busy afternoon for Rovers defenders Tom Anderson and Joe Wright. Gooch spoke of his preference to play “closer to the striker” in discussion of his wing-back slot in last Saturday’s game and it’s easy to see why, as he provides a much-needed creative outlet that brings explosiveness not seen elsewhere in the Black Cats’ squad.
It is Gooch and progressive midfield partner Josh Scowen who are likely to drag defenders out of position in order to allow the wing backs to exploit space in behind, and if Gooch is allowed to work his magic on Saturday then that could be the key to victory for them. For Rovers, Anderson and Wright will have to be vigilant to those attempts to pull them away from the middle of the field and they will need ample support from the sitting midfielder, whether that is Ben Whiteman or Matt Smith.
Rovers have never won a league game against Sunderland, but the contrasting fortunes of the two clubs over the years is the main reason for this as they have only spent three seasons prior to this one in the same division. The Wearside club did the double in 1987-88 en route to the Third Division title (Rovers finished dead last under Dave Cusack and Dave Mackay) and then repeated the feat two seasons ago, but Rovers did earn a goalless draw in the last meeting between the sides back in January of this year.