So, we are back in the Championship, a division we tend to pass through (in both directions) as opposed to loiter in for any significant amount of time.
This year, however, the expectations will be slightly different as promotion is certainly beyond realistic ambitions, and relegation is not a prospect any Alex Neil team would want to entertain. It all begins on Sunday lunchtime for the lads, televised because we are massive, with former League One champions Coventry City the visitors.
In terms of opening day performances we’ve historically been slow starters, and on two occasions in the last 25 years we’ve faced Coventry in the first fixture, which ended in defeat both times. The first back in 2004 at the old Highfield Road going down 2-0, before a 2-1 defeat at the freshly-built Ricoh Arena in 2006. But lets not dwell on the negativity, in both those seasons we ended up champions and heading back to the Premier League.
We had four encounters with the Warwickshire side during our tenure in League One and failed to win on any occasion, drawing two and losing two. The obvious one is the bizarre 5-4 defeat at the SoL where all defending went out the window, even Will Grigg scored. It’s hard to imagine an Alex Neil side to lose such discipline, so I’m going to leave that one where it belongs, in the third tier.
The last time the two sides met was a 1-0 defeat at the Sky Blues temporary home St. Andrews in 2019/20, where upon the full time whistle the Blaydon Races was blasted out of the pa system.. as if being in Birmingham wasn’t bad enough. But Coventry went onto win that 34-game season, and after two years of catch up here we are with a new ownership model, progressive recruitment strategy, and a young side raring to impress Head Coach Alex Neil.
Coventry have brought in seven players over the summer, with six of them being loans, one of which is the familiar face of Callum Doyle. The only actual signing is attacking midfielder Kasey Palmer from Bristol City on a free, so not a lot of investment it’s fair to say. We know the manager Mark Robins is a canny EFL operator and will have his team organised, which is shown in their flawless pre-season campaign they’ve had.
Unlike Sunderland the Sky Blues have a wealth of striking options with Matt Godden, Tyler Walker, Viktor Gyokeres and former Sunderland lad Martyn Waghorn. The midfielders Gustavo Hamer and Callum O’Hare will look to dominate the centre of midfield and will be a massive test for Corry Evans and Luke O’Nien in the middle of the park.
For Sunderland, the club has been busier than it appears as the majority of signings we’ve made were part of last season’s promotion squad. New contracts for Lyndon Gooch, Bailey Wright, and Patrick Roberts, whilst a welcome permanent return of former loanee Jack Clarke. Left-sided defender Aji Alese comes in from West Ham with good u23’s pedigree, but the real coup has been the arrival of centre back Dan Ballard who has already impressed in pre-season.
This week, Alex Bass has come in from Portsmouth to push first choice goalkeeper Anthony Patterson for the gloves, but we eagerly await some full backs and strikers. Ellis Simms could be the striker we do get in if the paper talk is true, and the ongoing debate as to whether Nathan Broadhead returns remains up in the air.
I expect the lads to line up pretty similar to the back end of last season, with Ballard to replace Wright as the likely option. Clarke, Roberts and Alex Pritchard will lead the press in support of everyone’s favourite, Ross Stewart, who’ll be hoping for another prosperous campaign.
Coventry should be organised off the back of a successful pre-season, and already au-fait with the requirements of the division. I predict a tight game where the first goal could win it… maybe a Ross Stewart penalty to take the points. Either way it’s good to be back in a standard that is not League One, backed by an nearly full and rocking stadium.
Ha’way the lads!