Seventeen years ago, to the day in fact, Sunderland AFC were beaten in their opening Championship fixture of the season. The score? As it happens, 2-1. The Black Cats went on to win the league. The moral of that tale is to not read too much into the outcome of one match. For Sunderland, the weekend’s defeat at the hands of newly-promoted Ipswich Town tells us virtually nothing about how this current campaign will pan out.
We can still take positives from the match. Most of the first half performance was excellent and the visitors struggled to lay a glove on the home side for much of it, and at 17 years of age, Bellingham looks a real talent; his technical ability will surely only improve in time.
However, while one result on its own cannot be held as a totem for an entire season, you simply cannot ignore that within the game itself, those old familiar frailties were still prevalent. Objectively, that must be a worry.
Much was written last season about Sunderland AFC’s lack of strikers. There is no point in going over old ground again in detail. Yet, it is surely worth highlighting that even Tony Mowbray is now beginning to appear frustrated by his lack of alternatives in that centre forward role.
Speaking after the full-time whistle, he said: “I don’t want to keep banging the drum but I do think we need more options at the top end of the pitch.”
In fact, the Head Coach met with supporters prior to the season curtain raiser at the Stadium of Light and by all accounts that same message was emphasised within that forum.
It is hard to disagree with Mowbray here and perhaps he is beginning to separate himself from some of the more strategic decisions that are being made behind the scenes.
Certainly, the fact that the Black Cats went into their second season in the Championship with an unproven 19-year-old as the club’s only (fit) striker and subsequently forced to play centre back Dan Ballard up front in the latter stages (as he has previously had to do with Danny Batth) laid bare the persistent lack of choice he has up front.
These concerns can no longer be dismissed as simply being ‘negative’ when they’re shared by Mowbray.
The narrative cannot be, ‘but Eliezer Mayenda’ either. Yes, the timing of his injury was unfortunate, but it is evident from Mowbray’s recent remarks that he does not expect him to make much of a mark this season and nor should he, “…he’s a young boy, we won’t burden him and he’ll at least this way get a chance to settle into the area and get used to his environment.”
At 18 and having signed from Ligue 2 side Sochaux with less than 5 hours of professional football under his belt, Sunderland AFC cannot surely expect this lad to fill the gaping holes upfront. Not yet anyway.
What also seemed readily apparent is that whilst the club have added depth to the squad during the window, they have not yet been able to bring in many who look to be able to dislodge last season’s starting XI, on a regular basis. It was no coincidence that it took the emergence of Alex Pritchard onto the field to fully ignite the Black Cats.
The good news of course is there is time to address this in the remainder of the transfer window. Along with an ‘oven ready’ centre forward or two, an experienced specialist of the defensive midfield persuasion is another must. Corry Evans won’t be back until the new year and frankly his absence has been felt as keenly as that of Ross Stewart.
These are all issues that have repeatedly hampered Mowbray and his attempt to improve the club’s position on the pitch since he joined. These frustrations are seemingly now beginning to understandably rankle. Finishing in the play-offs was a remarkable effort but how much more remarkable could last season have been with that extra sprinkling of experience and strikers? These are not unreasonable demands.
The club’s ‘model’ (still need a better word for this!) is to bring in youth, develop them and sell on for a significant profit to reinvest in the squad under the umbrella of ‘sustainability’. That will not change. It remains a good thing and the approach should not be abandoned.
However, if developing players for the future is the aspiration, looking back, January’s transfer window provided Mowbray with little in terms of help this season. Of the permanent signings only Pierre Ekwah can offer something in the here and now.
Arguably the Isaac Lihadji money will help matters in the days/weeks ahead. Yet, it can only do so if Mowbray is given the tools he has frankly needed for some time now.
While one result cannot define a season, reoccurring frailties can and this time they must be addressed.