I’m still an emotional wreck. The residual buzz from Sunderland’s Wembley heroics lives on and I’m not sure I’m ready for anything to snuff it out.
Enter the Championship…
Who knows what it has in store but I’ll have a stab at making some predictions.
Given the size of the club it’s a league that the Black Cats should be, at the very least, competing with the very best teams for promotion. Yet, four years in League One tell us that this is unlikely on the first attempt.
Instead the forthcoming campaign will be a transitional season. Incremental improvement is the order of the day. As much as we’d all like to see huge strides taken quickly the owners will not be spending huge sums on players, that’s for sure.
Irrespective of budget, much of Sunderland’s success this year will depend upon how well the remainder of the transfer window goes. Some positive work has already been achieved. Yet, with Coventry at home on the horizon there is still much work to do. Significant gaps exist with goalkeepers and strikers an urgent priority. Recent performances in pre-season also reveal defensive bad habits have the ability to return. That is a little concerning as the curtain is rising on our return to the second tier.
That said Alex Neil is in charge and the Scot has rightly earned wide spread support. Momentum is with him. The Championship is a league he is proven in, and as long as the recruitment is successful we should be on the fringes of mid-table come May.
Predicted finish: 15th
Player to watch: Daniel Ballard
Being a Sunderland supporter can often feel like going through life wrapped up in one big anxiety dream.
Even unbelievable highs like Wembley fade and when they do, years of social conditioning kicks in and you are just waiting for the next implosion.
Right now, it is hard to pitch expectation levels, despite the opening day of the season now being less than a week away.
As things stand, there are causes for both concern and optimism in equal measure, with Alex Neil in the dugout I think the chances of an immediate return to the third tier is highly unlikely and the permanent addition of Jack Clarke along with Bailey Wright, Lynden Gooch and Patrick Roberts putting pen to paper on new deals provides us with welcome continuity.
The signings of Daniel Ballard and Aji Alese are also very encouraging and have the potential to grow with the club, but we remain light in other key positions.
As things stand our second choice ‘keeper has played just 90 minutes of senior football in a Sunderland shirt, and that came against Manchester United’s children ft Paul McShane.
His only other first team experience came during spells with Portadown, Brighouse Town and Stocksbridge Park Steels and Ross Stewart remains our only recognised
I remain confident that we will have a solid season and we’ll bring more quality in but with seven fixtures to play between now and August 31st we can ill afford to have a slow start to the campaign.
Predicted Finish: 14th
Player to watch: Daniel Ballard
Momentum can be a funny thing in football, as we should know all too well. The last time we were in the Championship, we were blissfully unaware that our collapse from the Premier League was just the start of a steep slide into the third tier. This time round, we’ve come off the back of a phenomenal turnaround in form that stretches back February – we’ve only lost once in 17 games. Had the rest of the promotion hopefuls of last season not also gone on a ridiculous tear, it’s not much of a stretch to say our form in the second half of the campaign would’ve seen us up as champions.
The question is, can we continue that form and keep hold of the feel good atmosphere that’s been hanging around the club since that afternoon at Wembley? The Championship is a weird league; the top end is full of teams bloated with parachute money, then there’s around 16 teams who could literally finish anywhere. Alex Neil will have done an utterly stupendous job if we’re not in that pack of 16, but I see no reason why we can’t get ourselves comfortably mid/lower-mid table this year. The squad is still a little thin at the time of writing, but is starting to take shape, and if we bring Broadhead back, that leaves us on the lookout for a keeper, a fullback and a striker as top priorities, anything else would be a bonus, as long as we have players ready to play in each position, rather than makeshifts. That said, a quick look at Luton’s squad versus where they finished last year tells you it’s not all about the players you have.
On that note, the manager is our ace up our sleeve this season, he seems to have a talent for getting the very best out of the players available to him, and its probably a major factor in why we’ve been able to retain the likes of Roberts and Clarke. I trust in Neil to keep us steady, well probably not have a smooth ride of it, we’ll likely endue some torrid results, but I would also back us to have another lengthy spell of good form too. The optimist in me says we’ll flirt with playoffs for a while and fall away in the latter half of the season. Frankly, so long as we stay well clear of the League One front door this season, lIl be content.
Predicted Finish: 13th
Player to Watch: Jack Clarke
Football is back then, and your favourite optimist is back too. Not sure what happened with my misty eyed reviews and articles about Wembley, but normal service is about to be resumed here. I’ll start with positives, and I very much trust Alex Neil. We’ve also carried on some momentum from the play offs by basically assembling the same squad, which is absolutely fine. Right now, we’re fairly short in a few positions I think, lacking depth which is important what with the even more compact calendar thanks to FIFA and their loser World Cup. Pre season results and performances have been, mixed, to say the least and I think we’re just a bit lacking. That said, I feel there are far worse teams than us, and I don’t envisage us to struggle particularly. I think it will be boring. And for once, that’s fine with me.
Predicted finish: 17th
Player to watch: Patrick Roberts
This again. The alarm clock has sounded and Sonny and Cher are blaring from the radio. But hang on… something’s different. That’s right, I remember now, we actually broke the Groundhog Day recurring nightmare with promotion to The Championship and doesn’t it all look so different? Actually no.
A glance at our likely starting XI and you’d be forgiven for thinking very little has changed, Dan Ballard being the notable exception. Of course there is a strong case for continuity and momentum in keeping the core of the last season’s side together but surely that has to be supplemented by established Championship and, dare I say it, better players.
There is still time and I hope that those who’ve not played at this level before, or dropped down to League One, have a point to prove but serious squad investment is still needed in my opinion if we’re to finish any higher than lower-mid table. And maybe, perhaps, that’d be just fine.
Predicted Finish: 12th
Player to watch: Dennis Cirkin
After being all blubbering messes at Wembley a couple of months ago, the slog of the Championship lies ahead. While we can be grateful that we don’t have to plan trips to Gillingham and Portsmouth anymore, life in the second tier will be a challenge we haven’t really faced in a while.
There isn’t the pressure of achieving automatic promotion or reaching the play-offs but there is that lingering threat that if things don’t go well, we’ll be back in that scumbucket of a division before we know it. As seems to be the case every summer, we look to be going into the new campaign light in key areas, namely up front, in goal and at full back.
Securing the services of Patrick Roberts, Jack Clarke and, hopefully, the astute signing of Daniel Ballard shows the club aren’t going about their transfer business like complete dickheads this season but a few more players through the door would put my mind at ease a little. The plus side is that we have Alex Neil and that fact alone leaves me quite confident that we won’t be involved in a relegation scrap.
I can’t imagine a particularly pulsating season ahead and it’ll probably be quite boring but, for this season at least, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just please don’t let Lynden Gooch play right back all season.
Predicted finish: 15th
Player to watch: Patrick Roberts
Here we go then. After starting the past four seasons staring down the barrel of 46 third tier league games, that we’re now a Championship side again is a feeling that just isn’t getting old at all. Thanks to the frankly ridiculous winter World Cup in Qatar (with all its associated ethical, financial and corruption concerns) heading to our screens in November and December, our Championship season is looking somewhat different to the norm for the first half of it at least. As well as the mammoth 6 week break while the tournament is on, we are also starting earlier than normal which has had an effect on clubs across the league both with shortened breaks from last term, and also less time to get players in before the first game.
Herein lies the first point when looking at how Sunderland will fare this season: the squad. Its clear from preseason and also what we witnessed for the majority of last season that there are areas of weakness that need strengthening ahead of a tough Championship campaign, in what was a good but still at times lightweight and unbalanced League One squad. That we only have one striker (albeit a very good one) at present, as well as holes in fullback areas and central midfield plus the need for another ‘keeper heading into the first game is far from ideal. However, the window is still open for over a month still and we are by no means the only side in the league who is heading into the season below strength – the aforementioned messing with the schedule has affected every team.
The additions made (in the main) over the course of last season and those acquired thus far this give me a certain confidence that the required strengthening will be made to at least set us fair for a solid if unspectacular campaign. The Championship is a strange league in that there are a lot of clubs who have good squads on paper, but also have huge off-pitch issues and tend to be wildly inconsistent. The old cliché that anyone can beat anyone holds more true here than in any other league (bar possibly with the very top and very bottom clubs). Strong showings from our key players and some more smart recruitment both in the mould of the Ballard and Alese signings, as well as a little more added experience too and we could well have a good run (just look at what Luton did last season for an example of what can happen to an unfancied team in this league when it clicks into place).
As well as up and coming talent like Stewart, Cirkin and Patterson who will be chomping at the bit to play at this higher level, we’ve players who will want to prove a point or two this season for different reasons. The likes of Pritchard, Clarke, Baath and Roberts have played at this level before dropping down and will want to show the real versions of themselves now, after struggling and almost being wrongly written off as good Championship players previously. Furthermore O’Nien, Gooch and Wright have struggled in preseason but all three also ended out being key players in our promotion; they are known for the mental strength and leadership qualities so will need to put these to good use to get themselves ready to go again for the season proper, and to contribute in other ways even when not starting games.
On top of this, we also have one of the best managers in the league, who if we’re honest, is also the biggest single reason we’re here at all. He knows what it takes in the Championship to be successful (one promotion with Norwich and his finishes with Preston were as well as could be expected given the constraints he was working under), and if he is given the tools I am 100% convinced good things will happen – as he showed last season Alex Neil is not here just for a good time, he’s going places. Use this season to get acclimatised after our years in the doldrums, and then push on from there. This is just the start.
Predicted finish: 8th
Player to watch: Alex Pritchard
The Championship, it’s been a while my old friend. Once dubbed the fifth best league in Europe, it’s pace and competitiveness has always been well respected inside the game. That being said in recent times it’s been a league as financially sustainable as an 80’s mortgage rate.
So who holds all the aces in the second tier of English football then? Well as long as the Premier League looks after it’s own, the parachute payments will enable the relegated side to flex in the transfer market, and keep their highest earners. At the other end the newly promoted tend to lose one of the three, whilst the remaining two hang on by thread. The exception to the rule is Luton Town who after three seasons in the Championship managed to occupy the dizzy heights of the play-off spaces with a squad worth just £1.5m. A far cry from Cash-Money-Fulham.
So for the lads where do we sit in all this? Well we’ve manage to retain our January purchases, which is encouraging, as it was that personnel that took us on the promotion gaining unbeaten run. It’s also good to see that the recruitment team weren’t just looking at quick fixes, and were very much bringing in these players as part of a longer term plan.
I honestly feel we will be better suited to the the second tier as sides will not be coming to the SoL for a point, won’t be parking the bus, or trying to shithouse through an early lead. Sides will come at us, try to dominate us, and that of course allows the triple threat of Clarke, Pritchard and Roberts to lead our pressing counter acts. For Stewart he will obviously be up against a higher calibre of centre half, but he has certainly demonstrated that he has all the attributes to step up.
The squad isn’t there just yet though, and recruitment is paramount as we seek specialist full backs, a striker (or two), and another goalkeeper. Get those areas right, married with the complete faith I have in Alex Neil, and I feel a upper mid-table finish is well within our grasp.
Predicted finish: 10th
Player to Watch: Alex Pritchard
All things told, it’s been a fairly sedate summer on Wearside. Sunday’s return to action will arrive a mere 71 days after a certain trip to Wembley, a weekend that somehow feels both just two hours and almost two years ago. Time is a human construct, one that never feels more out of sync than when there’s no football to distract us.
That lack of distractions has been welcome after many summers of flux. For much of the past two months there’s been little for us to get excited and/or annoyed about, and that’s just fine really. We have a good manager, an ownership situation that has (sort of, kind of) been resolved for at least the short- to medium-term, and a young, energetic squad which ended last season in supreme form that we’ve largely managed to keep together. Given what we’re used to, it’s a wonder we don’t have the bunting out already.
As ever, not everything is perfect. Pre-season results mean diddly but have also given us little to be enthused by, while it’s undeniable the squad remains light in key areas. If anything unfortunate were to befall Ross Stewart any time soon, it’s difficult not to wonder whether opposition goalkeepers might start investing in deckchairs.
The Championship is a very different beast to League One, and though there’s good reason to be cautiously optimistic about our young players – the permanent signing of Jack Clarke is a statement that others will have noted – a second successive promotion looks a long way off from here. The gulf between those at the top and the rest is sizeable, and even if Alex Neil gets his wish of a few more in before the transfer deadline, a top-half finish would represent over-achievement.
The good thing is that we’re no longer one of the biggest basket cases in football, while plenty around us are. A lot rests on Neil, in truth; lose him and we could be staring down the barrel. As it stands, he’s here and we’re looking good for a lowish mid-table finish – and that’s progress.
Predicted finish: 17th
Player to Watch: Jack Clarke
Well, here we go again. Another season in this godforsak- oh yeah, we’ve been promoted. This is weird isn’t it?
That’s right – no longer will we play sides that treat the game as a cup final, we won’t have to travel to the likes of ‘Fleetwood’, ‘Burton’, ‘Cheltenham’ or ‘Morecambe’, and we can look forward to playing in grounds that have four stands again.
This will be our fifth season in the second tier of English football in 20 years. Our previous finishes, working backwards, were 24th, 1st, 1st, 3rd. Can anyone spot the outlier there? Nah, me neither.
But for the first time in quite a while, we’re going into the season with expectations pitched low. I don’t think any sane person is expecting us to fly through the league and be battling for promotion. I mean, if we do, then great, but as it stands, we’re a very small boat in a division full of frigates. Yes, some of those old ships resemble the ghost ships off the coast of Teesside all those years ago, rusting and slowly sinking, but you look at the top end of the Championship and it’s swimming in huge parachute payments (ah remember them?) or serious foreign investment that could dwarf our summer spending with one signing.
The permanent transfers of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts ensured continuity from last season, while the additions of Aji Alese and in particular Dan Ballard are smart signings – young, promising talent, brought in for a small outlay, with potential to sell on for a decent return.
At the time of writing, we’re still short of a few players in key positions – right-back, central defence, goalkeeper, midfield and up front – but, ignoring our less than encouraging pre-season campaign, we have the bedrock of a squad that can avoid relegation.
That needs to be the minimum from this season – stay up, and we can build from there. Anything else will be a bonus.
Predicted finish: 15th
One to watch: Ross Stewart