I caught up with Keith Chapman, who writes for Sunderland AFC’s Official Matchday Programme “Red and White” and official club magazine Legion of Light. For his sins, the man a followed Sunderland for 20 years and also a has been a season ticket holder since 1990. Though I struggled to hear him above the din of a hairy faced Irishman giving his side a half-time “hairdryer” treatment I did manage to ask him a few questions about his side and this weekends game:

Cutting straight to the chase, what do you think of your performances so far this season?

This season was always going to be a difficult season for us. On the plus side we have been a difficult side to beat at the Stadium of Light, although we narrowly lost to Everton last weekend. Prior to that, though, we’d won four in a row at home. Getting points away from home has been a big problem where we have lacked the quality required to get a win on the road. Performances have been OK generally this season and there have been games such as the Aston Villa game at home, away at Reading and more recently at Derby where key decisions went against us which would have lifted us into a healthier position in the league.

There is obviously a lot of room for improvement, as our league position shows. We have a lot of young players though who can only learn and get better. It has been particularly frustrating to see our most creative players, Kieran Richardson and Carlos Edwards missing for the vast majority of the season and I’m convinced we would have been much higher in the league had both these played more games.

What areas of your squad need strengthening?

At the moment we are desperately in need of creativity and a natural goalscorer to take the pressure off Kenwyne Jones. At the back we look a lot more solid with the signings of Phil Bardsley at right back and Manchester United centre half Jonny Evans. However, we have badly missed the width of Carlos Edwards on the right hand side. Up front I think we lack a striker in the Kevin Phillips mould who would be a perfect foil for Kenwyne.

What do you need to change “now” to get the points needed to avoid a return to the Championship?

In recent weeks we’ve adopted a more cautious formation. Last weekend, for instance, against Everton we played with only Kenwyne Jones up front. Although Everton struggled to create any decent chances our first shot on target was in injury time, which is disappointing given that we are at home. Although we look a lot harder to beat, if we are going to survive this season then we are going to have to score more goals and attack teams more, and for me that means we are going to have to go 4-4-2.

What do you think of Chelsea, as if we needed to ask? Are we now seeing the down side of having a multi-billionaire fan as owner?

It is always going to be difficult to maintain the level of success and silverware that Jose Mourinho brought to Stamford Bridge. However, you’re still in the Champions League and if expected, you beat Derby tomorrow night (we did – just! Ed), then you’re still in with a chance of the league, so it could be worse!

Is Keane the right man to be managing you? Will he still be the best man for the job even if you don’t survive the season?

I’m 100% behind Keane and he’s the right man to manage us in the short and long term. I’ve been very impressed with the job he has done so far. He’s very focused and brought a professionalism to Sunderland that was missing prior to his arrival. He arrived at a club that was, make no mistake about it, on its knees and plummeting into League One. The turnaround has been quite remarkable. The club is unrecognisable behind the scenes and the future looks bright. Keane is still only a baby in management terms but Sunderland is the right club for him, with our stadium, support base, and backing from the top. Should we survive this season then I firmly believe we can push on.

Which of our current squad do you most admire?

Joe Cole. Although you have some great players such as Petr Cech, John Terry, Didier Drogba and Anelka up front I’ve always enjoyed watching Joe Cole. He’s a fantastic little player, skillful and always looking to create something. I was very surprised he didn’t start in the Carling Cup final.

Where are your realistic long term ambitions. You’re a club with a strong historical support, big catchment area and large stadium, how far can you take it? As far as we want it to go. We’ve got everything in place to make great strides in the next few years. In Niall Quinn and Roy Keane we couldn’t wish for more focused, driven individuals to run our football club. I honestly think if we don’t get it right under this set up then we never will. We’ve got the financial backing in place, average crowds of over 40,000, and have a first-class stadium and training facilities. It is vital for the progression of our football club that we survive this season. If we do that, then we can only get better.

Where will you finish this season?

Although it will be close, I think we’ll be ok. There are seven clubs that could easily take the last relegation spot, including us. In my opinion, Derby and Fulham will go but the league changes week by week so it’s hard to predict. I think our home form will carry us through. What about Chelsea?

I think you will finish third, behind Manchester United and Arsenal. However, you still have them both to play at Stamford Bridge so that will be very interesting.

Give us a score prediction.

A very difficult game for us but I fancy us to give you a tough game. First goal is crucial. If we score it, then we have something to hang on to. If Chelsea get it, then they will be a tough nut to crack. 1-1

A big thanks to Keith for his time. Let’s hope he’s smiling come May, if not by 5pm on Saturday!

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