It’s that time of the year. Most the transfer dealings have been done, the Stadium Of Light pitch is looking greener and fresher than ever, and the omnipresent combination of fear and excitement that comes with supportingSunderland has gone in to overdrive.
With the Liverpool game on Saturday, followed by a home game with them lot up the road, we’ve even got two of the biggest games to kick off the season, and here on Roker Report our season is kicking off too.
It’s also of course the time where most websites will be putting their necks on the line and making bold or outlandish predictions for the season ahead. If we did that, who would really care? Not many I’m betting, so we sought out predictions and opinions from people whose opinions are well respected.
We’ve spoken to prominent members of the media and some former SAFC favourites to give us their thoughts on the season, and now we present them to you.
We’re giving the media first crack at this, so here’s the scoop from Jonathan Wilson (The Guardian/Sports Illustrated/The Blizzard), David Jones (Sky Sports), Richard Mason (The Northern Echo), Chris Young (Sunderland Echo) and last but by no means least, George Caulkin (The Times).
Most Sunderland fans are looking for a comfortable top ten finish this year, what chance do you give Sunderland of doing that?
Jonathan Wilson: I think that's got to be the aim. I worry a little given how many changes there have been over the summer, but hopefully we can establish ourselves as a good, solid Premier League side. I know the likes of Aston Villa and Everton say that gets boring after a while, but I’d like not to be twitching in March.
Chris Young: It should be firmly within their grasp. Sunderland would have had a comfortable top 10 finish last season if it hadn't been for their annual post-Christmas slump and the injury crisis which went with it. This year, there looks to be more depth to the squad and hopefully the addition of Wes Brown and John O'Shea will ensure Sunderland end their knack of throwing away leads. Would be nice for a cup run to go with a top 10 finish though...
David Jones: Every chance. Top ten is realistic, almost a minimum requirement given the level of continued investment from Ellis Short - it really is time he had a return for his cash. The problem is the Premier League gets no less competitive. The top six is it seems pretty established now, arguably top seven given the way Everton finished last year, which leaves the rest contesting eighth at best.
Richard Mason: Sunderland have been the most prolific recruiters outside the top four - they've brought in real quality and, injuries permitting, they should be exciting to watch next season. You have to ask "why not Sunderland?" Stoke and Fulham will have the distraction of the Europa League, Everton don't have the strength in depth, Liverpool have assembled a squad of midfielders - this could be Sunderland's season. But as we all know, 'could' is the key term here.
George Caulkin: Improving on last year is the club's target and I don't see any reason why that can't happen (with the one big traditional proviso, of course - this is North East football we're talking about and if something can go wrong, it usually will). But I think Steve Bruce has done some astute business in the transfer market this summer, the squad looks a lot more balanced (aside, at the time of writing, on the left side), and, well, there just can't be another rash of injuries like last season, can there? Can there? No. Can there? No. Ping ... Was that the sound of a hamstring tweaking?
SAFC’s Player Of The Season 2011/12 will be...
Jonathan Wilson: I'd love it to be Stephane Sessegnon or Asamoah Gyan, even Lee Cattermole, but I suspect it'll be a solid hard-working defender again: Bardsley or Bramble, maybe even Elmo if he gets a run in the side. Or Wes Brown of John O’Shea. Christ, we do have a lot of defenders, don't we?
Chris Young: Player of the season winners tend to be those consistent performers who don't always grab the headlines e.g. Danny Collins, Phil Bardsley - If that pattern continues, then John O'Shea could be a good shout. However, as an attacking influence, Stephane Sessegnon is already emerging as the key player for Sunderland. He blossomed in a more central role at the tail end of last season and could easily net double figures.
David Jones: Well I hope it's not the goalkeeper. Lee Cattermole is due a big season. I would love to see him mature into a top performer if he can stay injury free and on the pitch. I spent some time with Roberto Martinez this summer who believes Catts has everything talent wise but just needs to believe it. When the crowd cheers after he's run 40 yards to lunge into a tackle it doesn't help because he'll do it again, and then he's out of position and too tired to recover, leaving his defence exposed. That was the gist of Roberto's argument.
Richard Mason: Whoever stays fit for the duration of the campaign. Or as I call it, "does a Bardsley."
George Caulkin: Sessegnon. Ended last season strongly and, from what I've seen, has done well in pre-season. I love that kind of player - small, fizzy, a makes-things-happen type. At this point I need to say something: can you please bear in mind that none of my football predictions EVER come true. Apart from things traditionally going wrong in the North East. You can take that one to the bank, cash it in and spend it on absinthe to numb the pain. In fact, I hate predictions. I much prefer to wait and see what happens. But you're not going to let me do that, are you? Tyrants.
With Sunderland being very active in the transfer market over the summer, which of those signed will have the biggest impact?
Jonathan Wilson: Craig Gardner I think is highly underrated, and he hopefully should give us goals from midfield, which we've really lacked. Sebastian Larsson's set-plays, similarly, gives us an extra dimension - provided anybody remembers what to do when the ball clears the first man. The player I really hope has the biggest impact is Ji Dong-Won. He looked really impressive in the Asian Cup, and I think him and Gyan, both quite big and strong players, but both with movement and technique, could be a really handy partnership.
Chris Young: It's tough to look much further than Wes Brown and John O'Shea, both for their experience on the field and the leadership they will bring to one of the youngest squads in the top flight. Neither has come to Sunderland for a pay day, they genuinely want a new challenge in their careers and the chance of a regular starting spot. Admittedly, they won't get people off their seats like a Charles N'Zogbia would have, but they give Sunderland significant strength in depth at the back.
David Jones: David Vaughan is very tidy, a more consistent performer than Charlie Adam in the eyes of someBlackpool fans. I hope Larsson is more than a dead ball specialist. I hope O'Shea and Brown can play with the same intensity as they did at Old Trafford. But above all I hope the biggest impact will be made by Connor Wickham. It's a big price tag but he's a smashing lad and could be anything with the right guidance.
Richard Mason: It's difficult to tell. John O'Shea and Wes Brown bring with them title-winning experience which can either inspire or unsettle, Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham - despite Wickham costing five times as much as Ji - should not have large expectations placed on them so soon, Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson and David Vaughan were all shining lights in teams relegated from the Premier League - can they do it for a top half team? Keiren Westwood has been signed as a first-choice goalkeeper after a decent season in the Championship. Just like Kelvin Davis was. The jury is out on the new boys, though if you really want an answer, I'd say Ji Dong-Won.
George Caulkin: I think they all could, in different ways. They're all interesting. Excited by Wickham's potential, Larsson should add threat from midfield. Blah, blah, etc. But to get to the point, O'Shea and Brown are the two who have been brought to set the tone for Sunderland. They're all about winning, closing games out, holding firm. Add that experience to what was already there and it could be formidable.
And of course, which of the new boys is most likely to be considered (fairly or unfairly) a ‘flop’ at the end of the season?
Jonathan Wilson: I'm always a little suspicions of United cast-offs - so many seem to stutter and fall away as though the fire in them has gone out, so I do worry about Brown and O'Shea.
Chris Young: On an unfair level, I suppose there will inevitably be much scrutiny of Connor Wickham after such a significant outlay. It's a big calculated gamble from Bruce to potentially pay up to £12million for an 18-year-old who hasn't made a Premier League appearance yet. There will be some who grumble if Wickham doesn't reach double figures in his opening season. But he has massive potential, is physically ideal for the Premier League and just needs time to continue his development.
David Jones: All of them could be. There are those in football who consider every acquisition ordinary. And let's be realistic it could go either way for Wickham at that price.
Richard Mason: I'm going to stick my neck out here and say Craig Gardner. When Steve Bruce has a full squad to choose from, I don't see where everyone will fit in the midfield. If Bruce wants pace on the wings, he'll likely start with Elmohamady and Larsson as wingers, with Cattermole and an attacking midfielder through the middle. So that's Richardson, Gardner or Vaughan. Or Sessegnon if he plays five in midfield. I reckon Bruce will opt for Vaughan.
George Caulkin: I don't really want to answer that. I hate looking for people to fail, even in a lighthearted manner. But, in spite of the big fee, I hope that people remember Wickham's tender age and give him time to settle. This is not the season to judge him.
Will Steve Bruce still be in charge of Sunderland at the end of the season?
Jonathan Wilson: Yes, I think so. I know last season was frustrating at times, but 10th place with a healthy profit on transfer dealings is a decent return.
Chris Young: Yes. The 10th placed finish last season was a massive boost to Bruce's job security as he could point to achieving the main aim for the campaign. Bruce can still say there has been continued progress on his watch and he appears to have used the Jordan Henderson money astutely. Even during the slump last year, you never sensed there was any great pressure on Bruce from on high. Tellingly, there was little agitation from the media either.
David Jones: I hope so. Steve's a great guy, a real gentleman, and he's desperate to be a success at Sunderland. He's got a great team behind him who could have panicked halfway through the last campaign but they kept the faith and hopefully the fans will too. And if Bruce is still there next summer it will mean Sunderland have achieved.
Richard Mason: This is like the time Brian Moore asked Kevin Keegan if David Batty would score the penalty against Argentina in 1998. "Will he score?" Keegan (defiantly): "YES." Moore: "He's missed it!" So, erm, in Kevin Keegan style, YES.
George Caulkin: Yup. I spent some time with him in Germany this summer and he seems relaxed, positive and eager to get on with things. The great thing for any manager working under Niall Quinn is that they'll get a chance. I think this is a big season for Steve, though. This is his team now. And the aim is better than 10th.
The Derby on August the 20th is rapidly approaching – What’s the score going to be?
Jonathan Wilson: 2-0. We're always better in derbies when I'm not there, and I'll be in Colombia. Plus Newcastleseems to be self-destructing at the moment. No Carroll, Nolan, Barton, maybe Enrique on his way...
Chris Young: Home win. I think Newcastle is in for a real season of toil after losing the leaders of the dressing room. Kevin Nolan was the glue holding the place together during the Chris Hughton dismissal and Andy Carrollsale. His shock departure will have sent shockwaves among the other players. I don't think the French signings at St James's will have acclimatised by the time the derby comes around either.
David Jones: 2-0 win. Newcastle without characters such as Carroll, Nolan and Barton are less of a threat on Derby Day.
Richard Mason: It's a great time to have it. Neither team will have built up any kind of form so the predictions are going to be all over the place. I can see Sunderland pipping it but Shola Ameobi will play a part. Can I say 2-1? Well, I just did.
George Caulkin: It will be a draw. This answer is a cop-out, I realise. But I always think derbies are going to end in draws. And quite often they do. After the difficult summer Newcastle have had, Sunderland will be favourites and they've certainly got an opportunity to take advantage of any lingering instability - but last season proved that it's futile to second-guess these games.
Will SAFC finish the North East’s top dogs once again?
Jonathan Wilson: They ought to, based on their squad and Newcastle's apparent problems.
Chris Young: Comfortably because Newcastle's main focus will be on fighting the drop. Other than Demba Ba, I just can't see who will score the goals for the Magpies and I wouldn't fancy relying on the ex-West Ham man's dodgy knee for success.
David Jones: I'd be surprised if they don't (see above) but in fairness the French boys Newcastle have signed, Marveaux and Cabaye have real pedigree. While Bruce has shifted to a British core, Pardew seems to be moving away from it. We'll see which approach works best.
Richard Mason: Injuries permitting, yes.
George Caulkin: Who knows. What I would like is a repeat of last season, in the sense that for the first time in a long time, it felt like the two clubs were lifting each other up rather than dragging each other down. The derbies weren't about degrees of desperation, or avoiding relegation. It was a subtle shift, but an important one for football in the region. Long may it continue.
Finally, one last ‘out there’ prediction for Sunderland...
Jonathan Wilson: Gyan scores a hat-trick in the final as Ghana win Cup of Nations in February, and Sunderland's press-office refuse to let him speak to the media.
Chris Young: The big boys start circling over Louis Laing and knock the dust off their cheque books. The teenager has a big future ahead of him.
David Jones: Sunderland to do the derby double!
Richard Mason: Sunderland will go three months without a win, with injuries hitting the squad to the extent that 11 first team players will be out of action. They will go into their final fixtures without a recognised striker, at one point asking their right-back to go up front. Sorry. That's just TOO far-fetched isn't it? Oh.
George Caulkin: Nothing that I've said above will happen, obviously.
We give a huge thanks to all the guys for participating, and sharing their thoughts on the season. If you want to see what they get up to when they aren't talking to us, then there's an abundance of links at the top of this article when I introduced the line-up. Go read them, and follow them on Twitter. Everything you need is right there.