Sunderland face Derby County tonight in their penultimate game before the new Premier League season and Martin O'Neill will no doubt be looking for a marked improvement in performance following three defeats so far this summer.
It has been a test of patience so far this summer for Sunderland fans with little activity on and off the pitch to spark real excitement and with no imminent breakthrough in the transfer market obvious it looks set to be a continued test of nerves.
On to tonight's game...
Formed in 1884 as part of the Derbyshire County Cricket Club by William Morley, Derby were one of the founding clubs of the Football League in 1888 and are one of the select group of ten clubs to have competed in the each of the league's seasons to date.
Derby's "Glory Days" came in the 1970's when they were twice crowned Division One Champions which earned the club the right to compete in Europe, even reaching the European Cup semi-final in 1972/73, losing to Juventus in a controversial game where it was claimed the Italian giants had bribed the officials. In typical fashion Brian Clough, then manager at Derby, proclaimed that the Italian's were "cheating b*st*rds". Clough's outspoken comments at the time created a rift between himself and the Derby board which would eventually see the legendary manager leave the club not long after.
Derby County are a club that Sunderland fans owe a great deal of debt to. The 2005/06 season saw SAFC earn the unflattering record of the lowest points haul of fifteen points, beating their own record of nineteen. At the time it seemed unlikely that any other side would come close to even matching such an embarrassing showing nevermind eclipsing it. That was until 2007/08 however which saw good old Derby smash the record and finish the season with just eleven points on the board.
Since then Derby have enjoyed mixed success under Nigel Clough, which has seen the side either push for the play-offs or flirt with relegation, whilst Clough has sustained a prolonged effort to restructure his side. Rams fans will be hoping that the steady progress made will continue and they may be in with a chance of challenging for the play-offs this coming season.
Meh, who cares, let's watch Poom's goal again!
Born in Sunderland, Clough would go on to become a promising forward under his father's management at Nottingham Forest. However Nigel's career was seemingly affected by the scandals surrounding his father's departure from management and he never really fulfilled the promise he had shown at Liverpool or in turn Manchester City.
Having made the move into management in 1998, originally as player-manager, with Burton Albion, Clough would guide the side back into the Conference and earn a famous draw with Manchester United in the FA Cup.
Clough's achievements at Burton had not gone un-noticed, something which was always going to be impossible given his name, and in January of 2009 he was appointed by Derby County as the successor for Paul Jewell. The 2011/13 season saw Clough finally reap the rewards of his prolonged effort to turn his squad around and achieved a top half finish.
Clough has worked diligently to assemble, barring a few exceptions, a youthful squad that is eager and hungry for success, with players such as Michael Jacobs, Paul Coutts and Richard Keogh being good examples of the youngsters Nigel will be pinning his hopes upon.
Jeff Hendrick has also impressed having come through the ranks at the club and made over forty appearances for the side last year, operating either in the centre of the park or out wide.
One To Watch
Theo Robinson is the man currently grabbing the limelight at Derby having found the net four times in the club's four pre-season friendlies so far and Clough will be hoping the 23-year-old can continue his streak and stake a claim for the coming season given his side currently looks short of a reliable goal scorer.
Robinson managed 12 goals last season, which was a decent return considering the niggling injuries which prevented the forward from putting together a sustained run in the side.
Tough Test For SAFC?
Derby have been a side in transition for a number of years but look close to being able to mount a challenge for the play-off spots if they can sustain a good run of form in the new season. The Rams should prove to be the ideal opposition for O'Neill's men to step up and put in the more competitive performance and work out some of the simple mistakes which have been prevalent this summer.
O'Neill has been keen to stress the importance for his side to now kick on this summer and will demand an improved performance tonight after recent showings. With the new season looming O'Neill is running out of time to tinker with his side and as such you would expect as full strength a side as possible running out tonight.
Although both Ahmed Elmohamady and Stephane Sessegnon were expected to be involved tonight having missed the Sweden trip with O'Neill preferring for the pair to be put through their paces back home on Wearside rather than apply for visas, word came out of the SAFC camp yesterday that Sess is set to miss tonight's game through ankle injury. This will undoubtedly be a blow to O'Neill's preparations and Sunderland fans will be hoping the star in the Sunderland crown will be fit come the opening day trip to London.
David Meyler could also be in contention having missed the game against Helsingborgs through injury but it is likely to be a game too soon for Wes Brown who may recover from his knee injury sustained at the Peace Cup in time for the weekend's game at Leicester.