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Why Sunderland shouldn't take the Championship for granted - it's tougher than it seems

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Sunderland’s (almost certain) relegation doesn’t quite feel as awful as it should, but should we be a little more anxious at the prospect of life in the Championship?

Leeds United v Sunderland Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Whether that’s due to the fact we’ve been here before and the previous two demotions were historically awful, or perhaps after years of losing records and winless months fans are ready for a break from the miserable apathy surrounding a club that has barely escaped relegation in recent years, some Sunderland fans seem a little blasé about the prospect of a minimum of one season in the league below.

Some fans even go so far as to see relegation as a cathartic break from the years and years of turning up at the Stadium of Light on Saturday knowing Sunderland could be in for a pasting. The Championship offers something new and exciting, dare we imagine the prospect of winning more games than we lose?

Yet despite these admirable musings - are we really sure things will get significantly better?

The Championship has been referred to the point of cliche as a 'tough division to get out of’. Yet, given the length of time many famous English clubs have spent stuck there, the saying certainly feels vindicated. Nottingham Forest will start their 19th season outside the top flight next year while Leeds United are currently hoping that they can do enough to avoid a 14th year away from the big time. Sunderland could be in for a major shock come next season.

Jason Wilcox of Leeds United
Well this was certainly a while ago.

Sunderland have returned from the Championship relatively unscathed in their previous two stays. A two year stint under Mick McCarthy saw third place and play-off heartbreak followed by a championship, and no one can forget Roy Keane’s rollercoaster promotion season.

The question we must ask now is whether what happened in 2007 and 2005 still relevant to the current footballing landscape?

Only two of the managers from that year’s top six are currently employed as head coaches. McCarthy - who is perilously holding on as the longest serving manager in the division - currently sits mid-table with Ipswich Town, and Tony Mowbray's Blackburn Rovers are currently in the relegation zone with two games to go.

The Championship has always been notorious for its competitiveness, but the league feels different now. Clubs the Black Cats would expect to have an advantage over are getting smarter in their approach to the game. Huddersfield Town’s left-field appointment of David Wagner as manager has transformed them into energetic promotion contenders while Brentford Town’s shrewd recruitment policies continue to enable them to overachieve.

In comparison to Brentford, the club who signed Joleon Lescott on a free - despite his recent knee injuries and negative role in Aston Villa’s relegation - currently aren’t making any sensible decisions close to those that have enabled Brentford to bring the likes of Jota and Sergi Canos to Griffin Park.

Brentford v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship
Will Sunderland be unable to unearth a Jota, or two? The Spaniard has found the net 12 times for Brentford since his January move to the club.
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Another fear is how many Wearsiders will truly stand out as being among the best in their position and show an ability to outclass those in the division below? A worrying number of the current Sunderland crop could be classed as tweeners: players good enough to fill small roles on Premier League teams, but not too good for the Championship.

Billy Jones didn’t reach the Premier League until his eighth year as a professional; Jack Rodwell’s unlikely to morph into a regular scorer if his 16 career goals to date are anything to go by, and Papy Djilobodji’s mistakes in red and white have largely been mental and could just as easily be replicated next year.

The boost in quality to the Premier League following the latest incredible rise in TV money has also likely had a trickle-down effect on the leagues below - and not in a positive way. It’s getting harder and harder for previous no-brainer Premier League level players to get out and stay out of the second tier. Tom Ince and Henri Lansbury for example were both impressive England under 21 internationals who broke through at two of the country’s biggest clubs. They have now spent a majority of their careers struggling to breakout of the Football League as they head into their mid-twenties.

When Georgi Wijnaldum, Xherdan Shaqiri and Dimitri Payet all moved to mid-tier Premier League clubs who previously didn’t have the clout attract them, naturally others lost their place in the world’s most expensive league two years ago.

Heading into a hyper competitive league as per usual the Wearsiders face an uncertain summer. Seven first teamers are out of contract in the summer, with star player Jermain Defoe almost certain to leave, and not to mention three returning loan players and others likely to be moved on.

Sunderland v Manchester United - Premier League
Defoe will be a real loss to the club.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

So as per usual Sunderland’s squad will need a large overhaul this summer. However, uncertainty and unfamiliarity between the playing squad could lead to another slow start for Sunderland. This raises major issues for us given how badly Moyes handled the summer transfer window and subsequent January window.

Moyes has shown an over-reliance on players he’s previously worked with. Members of his successful Everton team have looked way past their peak and have done little to illuminate the Stadium of Light. Didier Ndong is raw and may prove a successful signing in the long term, but in the context of this season he has failed to match Yann M’Villa’s brilliance from last year. Sunderland’s other big money signing, Papy Djilobodji, has been a disaster, and the team practically fell apart when he and John O’Shea were paired in defence midway through the season.

Given the Glaswegian’s struggles and worrying comments about wanting to sign only British players - which drastically limits his options - another poor window could ruin the new look Black Cats.

Over half of the teams relegated since Sunderland’s last Championship season have never returned to the Premier League. Of those 16 clubs, 7 have been relegated from the second tier, with Blackburn looking good to make it eight.

On top of worries regarding the current manager’s transfer record at the club, there are also concerns about his ability to coach a winning football team. Whether broken from his time at Manchester United, or just low on trust with his current squad, Moyes has not looked like a manager capable of producing attacking football. How high can Sunderland realistically finish in a competition when their head coach is guilty of not playing his best attacking player meaningfully for a majority of the season due to fear of losing possession?

Given the plethora of ex-Premier League teams and players in the division, the smarter approaches to football adopted by ‘smaller’ clubs, and aggressive transfer strategies from clubs like Aston Villa, Fulham and Derby County - next season could be a real challenge.

For Sunderland to escape or enjoy next season they must improve everywhere from coaching, transfers, creating an identity in terms playing and coaching. Given the way Ellis Short has panicked into one short-term mistake after another, and the total lack of positive news stemming from the club I supposed we’d buckle up because next year looks like it could be a tough ride.