Our third season in League One kicks off on Saturday, so we’ve assembled a crack team of optimists, fantasists, defeatists and downright unrealistic-ists to have a go at predicting how things will pan out.
There’s still a great deal of bitterness around last season and how the EFL played musical chairs with League One. In Sunderland’s case we were the ones that tried to sit down at the same time as Wycombe but they got there first leaving us on our arses, making us cry to the point where we had to ring our Mam and get her to come pick us up.
This needs to be the motivation this season. Let’s not be the ones left crying – again.
I’m not Phil Parkinson’s biggest fan but he has assembled a squad this summer with a few more options than what he had last term. It should be more than good enough for the play-offs. And, if Will Grigg is half as sharp as he’s looked in pre-season, his goal threat could be the difference between play-offs and automatic promotion.
With Danny Graham and Aiden O’Brien bolstering the front line to complement Parkinson’s previous first choice pick of Charlie Wyke, there’s going to be solid competition at least.
The emergence of Dan Neil and the return from loan of Jack Diamond should also add more depth to our midfield.
There’s still work to do for Parkinson – left-back is an area that needs cover and I’d like to see an extra body in the middle of the park – but this summer’s business is something to be applauded.
It’s shit or bust now, and we need to be hitting the ground running from the first game onwards.
Player to watch: Will Grigg
Predicted league finish: 2nd
At the time of writing I am still high off the fumes of our 8-1 demolition of Aston Villa Under 21’s, so excuse me if I allow the giddiness of a potential extra time defeat to Charlton at a reduced capacity Wembley Stadium cloud my judgement.
Since Parkinson’s appointment, we’ve been consistently inconsistent, the likes of Tranmere, Rochdale, Wycombe and Lincoln have all been swotted aside within the opening half an hour; but the mere memory of ‘giving it a good go’ at Gillingham or a meek surrender at Bristol Rovers is enough to make you wish that COVID-19 had permanently terminated football.
This must improve if we are to have a chance of automatic promotion.
Our recruitment so far has been mixed, with Feeny, Xhemajli, and O’Brien in particular having the potential to be astute signings.
However, our lack of cover in the full back and midfield areas remains a worry and I’m not convinced by either of our senior goalkeepers.
I’ve always maintained that if you are manager of Sunderland outside of the top flight, it is your objective to win the league.
Whether Parkinson can achieve the first step of that process remains to be seen.
Player to watch: Arbenit Xhemajli
Predicted league finish: 4th
Scrolling through Twitter this morning I was met with a video of a Super Kev goal against Leeds and an image of Marcus Stewart. Two lads, who in different times scored some important goals to help elevate the lads. Boy, we need their goals now.
Personally, I’m quite ‘hmm’ with how we’ve recruited. I’d be lying if I said I was excited because some of the lads are relatively unknown, but from what we’ve seen in pre-season, they fit into Parkinson’s shape quite nicely, and with the mix of youth, who knows what could happen!
Sunderland have to go up, no ifs or buts or fantasy transfer talks about it. The players are blessed with empty stadiums and a lack of whinging for so many games, they need to take it and hit the ground running. For this reason, I think we’ll storm it. Confidence will shine through and by the time we’re back in the Roker End singing them on, nothing will be able to stop us (again).
Player to watch: Josh Scowen
Predicted League finish: 1st
And we’re back. Season three of The League One Adventures of the Most Professional Club in History™ is upon us and we just can’t wait. Everyone loves a trilogy, right?
While we all hope for a happy ending – think more Lord of the Rings than The Godfather – a significant chunk of our six-month hiatus has been spent in the doldrums. With a crisis a week and almost as many statements on season cards, it was hard to envisage many meeting this new term with optimism.
Yet some left-field signings and the emergence of a couple of academy starlets (imagine if we’d actually bothered to utilise our youth set-up before now?), alongside the demolition of some children from the Midlands on Tuesday has got the positive juices flowing once more.
Whether that optimism is misplaced could become clear quite soon, with a few tricky games up early, but Phil Parkinson does at least appear to have melded a tight-knit group who are raring to go.
I have my doubts as to whether we will last the pace – an attribute we continue to lack, and have done so since roughly 1986 – and off-field concerns will only continue to grow, but if Charlton Athletic could get promoted amid boardroom strife then it’s proof we can too.
Truthfully it is off the field where our club’s long-term fate will be decided; a ridiculous state of affairs given we’ve had to say it for far too many seasons recently.
Player to watch: Dan Neil
Predicted league finish: 5th
I didn’t expect to be heading into this season with even a shred of optimism. When COVID hit, I was on the verge of diving head first into the North Sea, setting my internal Sat Nav for Nordic lands and adopting a basic, but Sunderland-free lifestyle among my newly adopted bear family deep in the forests of northern Scandinavia. Anything to avoid our dwindling, uninspiring performances.
But after beating a side from a town that’s better known for its spring water than football, a collection of trialists near a running track and an inexperienced collection of teenagers, it turns out Phil Parkinson has me believing.
I don’t think I’m the only one, either. The general mood around the football club seems to have improved since ‘season card-gate’. Perhaps it’s the fact we haven’t seen League One football for six months, so have forgotten just how bad it can be. Or it could be that our players seem as fit as they ever have at this stage of the season, and Parkinson has crafted a nicely balanced team for the first time.
Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it, particularly how our new data-led transfer policy pans out and, of course, the return of Sunderland’s forgotten son.
Player to watch: Danny Graham
Predicted league finish: 4th
It’s a well-established fact* that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Back in March when we realised there was going to be a hell of a lot we were going to be missing over the coming months, not many Sunderland supporters would have had their football club near the top of that list. There were numerous claims of “I’m not missing football at all”, “it’s not the same” “I don’t care about Sunderland anymore” etc flying around locked-down Twitter, Facebook; and (presumably) Zoom, Houseparty and any other dubious methods of remote interaction we were forced to shove in front of our faces too.
Oh, how times have changed. League One is very much back, baby, and if you’re not excited then in my (non) professional opinion: you’re lying. So, how will we do? I’m pretty optimistic to be honest. The additions we’ve made have improved the squad from where it was in the second half of last season (obligatory shout out to Mr D Graham here), and evidence from the games so far has been primarily positive. The impact of the new boys has been noticeable – in particular Bailey Wright solidifying the back line and Aiden O’Brien bringing Championship and international experience along with a refreshing directness to complement his technical ability. Furthermore, the seemingly resurgent Will Grigg (I know it’s early days but let me dream) and the lesser-spotted Josh Scowen have the potential to be ‘like new signings’ (cliché intended).
The key difference which can make this season a success though will be the youth. Jack Diamond has returned from his loan at Harrogate to all intents and purposes a different (and first team ready) player, Dan Neil has seemingly arrived from nowhere but is showing he may well have a serious part to play and most important of all is Elliot Embleton. Having missed virtually all of last season through injury, he must be raring to go now. He has the ability to be a real standout player and difference maker against anyone in this league, and if (this is a big ‘if’ it seems) he can stay fit this could be a massive season for him.
We all know that the standard in League One is not high, and by all accounts the favourites (alongside ourselves) are sides that should hold no fear for this year’s more balanced squad. Parkinson has had his critics (myself included); but there are multiple signs that things are on the up, and the squad seems focused, unified and prepared. Bring it on.
Player to watch: Elliot Embleton
Predicted league finish: 2nd
In the midst of a pandemic, mass unemployment and not being able to hug your grandmother, it’s been hard to really care about the next calamity Sunderland AFC are able to dish up. And then Danny Graham signs and we’re immediately drawn back in.
I’ll be honest, I have no idea how we’ll fare this season, or even how we are supposed to fare. I have little to zero knowledge of the parade of ‘just men’ we have signed, and am still hugely sceptical of Phil Parkinson as a manager. I’ve already heard suggestions that we should be aiming for promotion and that this should be the year we escape this hellscape of a division but it’s a tune that’s been playing for the past three years.
The loathed ownership are still here and, despite the interests of hilarious ‘buyers’, will continue to lie, say the fans are nasty to them, and sell any player for literally any price. With supporters not expected to be allowed back into stadiums until the Tories deem the poor worthy of leisure time outside of their house, is there anything to be that excited about?
The plus side is that the majority of League One is absolute garbage so we’ll end up in the top seven by default, and most likely consign ourselves to more glorious failure. Get pumped folks!
Player to watch: Danny Graham
Predicted league finish: 7th
With a new season comes renewed optimism. Or does it?
I think we once again have an above average squad and when that’s combined with strong team spirit and an inspiring coach, that can be enough to secure a top two finish. It’s that latter point that concerns me most though. Last season Sunderland were rubbish, really good, then rubbish again under Phil Parkinson. He has so far shown me nothing to suggest he possesses the flexibility and willingness to rotate required to get through what will be the most gruelling of seasons.
In terms of signings, it appears a mixed bag. Bailey Wright, Aiden O’Brien and Danny Graham all seem to fit neatly into Parkinson’s preferred, and perhaps only, system. Others are more of an unknown quantity, with Arbenit Xhemajli in particular the least ‘Sunderlandy’ signing for many years.
I can’t vouch for the reliability of ‘Wyscout’, it could well be Why Bird’s post-Playdays digital venture for all I know, but it does at least point towards a more data driven approach to unearthing new players and less about simply asking “does he wear gloves?”
Speaking of gloves, another area of concern is with the goalkeepers and the departure of Jon McLaughlin has undoubtedly weakened that position. Can a team truly have top two ambitions in the absence of an outstanding goalkeeper?
Player to Watch: Aiden O’Brien
Predicted league finish: 6th