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Pre-season... It's so much more than a string of meaningless friendlies and fitness drills

Pre-season is in full swing, and it's rekindling my love for all things SAFC all over again. Yes, a win away at Bury or a loss at St Johnstone really can do just that. Besides the fitness exercises and the transfer speculation, what else have we learned so far?

Hibernian v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

‘Don't read too much in to pre-season’ they say. ‘It's nothing but a string of fitness exercises’ they say. ‘Results don't matter’ they say. If you think about it, none of that is really true.

Four games in to our campaign of friendlies and a tour of Scotland, and I've already learned quite a lot, meaning surely Simon Grayson and his staff will have done so too. I've learned that despite a season that I wish to banish completely from my memory, I'm still looking forward to a new campaign. Dare I say, I'm even a little optimistic. Despite our recent loss to St. Johnstone, it had only took a couple of friendly games to refuel the fire again.

The obvious positive for Sunderland from the games played so far has been Josh Maja. Much of the hype at the beginning of last season centered around Joel Asoro rather than Maja; Asoro certainly has had more column inches devoted to his progress in recent months, but it was Maja who impressed more in the appearances I saw for the U23’s last season.

He is certainly fleet of foot, direct, and can finish when chances come his way. He also possesses a great first touch, and it is arguably his most valuable asset. It is very early days but we may have a real talent here, one that can play a big part in our season. He has lit up the two matches he's featured in and even at this embryonic stage of his Sunderland career looks to have built up an understanding on the pitch with Wahbi Khazri.

Judging by what we've learned from the training camp in Austria, it would appear that the pair get along off the pitch too, something that can only help us in the meantime. Of course, it’s all academic if Khazri moves on, but it certainly bodes well for the future if Simon Grayson decides to keep the Tunisian.

Hibernian v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly
Does Khazri still have a future on Wearside?
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

I still think that it remains very plausible that the likes of Lamine Kone, Jeremain Lens and Papy Djilobodji will move on to pastures new, and as I said last week, there won't be many of us mourning the loss of any of those three. But what of Khazri?

The way he's performed so far in pre-season has got some people talking and wondering if his stay here could yet be extended. He could simply be putting himself in the shop window of course, and unlike some of his team-mates, Khazri's stock remains high among the vast majority of Sunderland supporters. Towards the end of last season we saw glimpses of what he can do. His glaring omission for David Moyes' starting XI each week was made all the more baffling after a great display at home to West Ham, particularly when you consider that was his first start for six months.

He was also of course a key figure in the run of games that saved us during Big Sam's tenure here. Whether it is playing for a move elsewhere or a show of professionalism, Wahbi Khazri hanging around for another season is not a bad thing at all. He'd be a real asset in The Championship, his creativity, ingenuity and guile are traits that most of our current crop do not possess, and Simon Grayson will already be thinking of whether it is possible to slot him into a starting XI; whether that is with or without the signing of Aiden McGeady. All of a sudden Khazri's situation has become a hotter topic to debate.

I realize that only two weeks or so into July is not an ideal time to make any sort of rash predictions or assumptions with regards to the playing squad; we still need plenty of signings and things can change on a daily basis. I can't help but see lifelines for the likes of Khazri and Darron Gibson; maybe one or two others.

With a full pre-season schedule behind him, a fitter, sharper Gibson could also be a real plus for us. From the bits and pieces I managed to see, he looked a lot better during the Hibs game. I have been critical of him in the past, but not many in the league would have a better trio than Gibson, Catts and Didier Ndong. Even better if we can also add to our midfield options. Some may not agree but I think Mannone would be a solid number one for a Championship campaign, again, if he decides to prolong his stay at The Stadium of Light.

Crystal Palace v Sunderland - Premier League
Can Darron Gibson play an important part this season?
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

This period of the football calendar can sometimes raise more questions than it answers, but it's wrong to completely dismiss friendly games as meaningless fitness exercises. They build up a bit of excitement before the curtain raises for the real stuff to begin. Fans finally get to see their team play once more, and in our case, in some of the least glamorous places of the country. Livingston and Scunthorpe away you say? Too right; where do I sign?

Some players get unlikely lifelines. Some players with points to prove knuckle down and work hard to right past wrongs. Young players grasp the opportunity to stake a first team claim, and there are plenty of those up for grabs here at the moment. The whole squad has to impress new manager Simon Grayson. His comments after the game in Perth cement what we all thought; he will take a no nonsense attitude when it comes to team selection, and it would appear that he is quickly learning who he wants to ship out due to poor work rate and bad attitudes, even at this early stage of proceedings. Those that remain from last season's miserable campaign owe it to us all to show that they are determined to return us to the top flight.

That hard work doesn't start at home to Derby on 4th August, it already began on a warm Friday evening at Bury. Our assault on a gruelling 46 game marathon has commenced; pre-season becoming the starting platform to get us up and running when we go for real. As for those meaningless fitness exercises; we'd do well to think again.

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