The last time I watched Sunderland was almost exactly two months ago. In reality, that’s nothing but if you subscribe to the cliche-riddled folklore of football, it’s a lifetime.
In recent years we’ve ended seasons on a high due to coming out on top in various relegation battles, and that optimism has carried on into the following pre-season, before being dashed around late August. When I’ve attended pre-season games in the past, I can usually still feel the remnants of positivity that are there at the end of the preceding campaign. Due to the way the previous season played out though, this time there’s an obvious difference in the air. There’s a contrast between the fury, emotion and gallows humour witnessed in our small corner of Stamford Bridge back in May and the relaxed intrigue at Victoria Park for our friendly against Hartlepool last night.
Feeling relaxed at a pre-season game isn’t unusual, of course. These games don’t matter too much and there’s nothing really to worry about, you just want the lads to get some sharpness and look like they have some decent ideas. After such a humiliation last season though, you would forgive Sunderland supporters for still wanting to vent some frustrations last night. Who they vent that towards doesn’t really matter, it rarely does, but bar the odd call to get rid of Lamine Kone or the occassional “who’s he?” directed towards Adam Matthews, the atmosphere in the Niramax Terrace was pretty positive.
A friendly in July can often be a match of firsts for a supporter: a first look at a new signing, maybe it’s the first time you get to see that youth player you keep hearing people talk about or maybe even it’s a new ground to tick off your list. While I’ve visited the home of Hartlepool United many times, usually to watch Sunderland play at around this time of year, I was there to, hopefully, see all of our new boys.
Travelling to the game I was disappointed to read on social media that Aiden McGeady and Brenden Galloway were omitted from the squad. Although it’s just down the road, it’s annoying to go to a friendly with the objective of seeing the new signings, only for half of them not to feature. Not to worry though, James Vaughan and Ty Browning were starting, while I’d also get to have a look at young ‘uns Max Stryjek, Joel Asoro and Josh Maja.
It wasn’t all about new players though. Since that hot, almost pointless, afternoon in West London, David Moyes has been replaced in the dugout by Simon Grayson, a man who actually seems to want to manage Sunderland. I know that should be the bare minimum for a any gaffer but after last season, where fans had their expectations smashed to smithereens on a consistent basis, someone just saying basic things like “I want to get this club back to where it belongs” and other lines from the “Newly Appointed Manager Of A Relegated Club” Phrasebook seem like insightful prose.
With Grayson’s talk off the pitch of flushing players out of the club who don’t work hard and buy into his ideas, most supporters are willing to give him their backing and those that were sceptical initially are being won over. A quick, direct style of football usually goes down well with the Sunderland faithful too but it will have to drastically improve based on what was on show against Pools. A more dogged style of football is fine if it’s implemented effectively but too often here, the ball was just aimlessly punted up field.
Fair play to James Vaughan, who chased everything down and never stopped working, showing the kind of endeavour will certainly bring some joy against error prone Championship defenders. If Ty Browning, who looked assured through out, can translate his composure into competitive games, he could be a valuable asset to the squad as well. It wasn’t a game where either got much of a chance to show what they can do but neither of them disappointed when involved.
In terms of the promoted Under 23 lads, it was somewhat mixed. Celebrating his 21st birthday, Max Stryjek didn’t have a lot to do but looked confident in commanding his area and there was certainly nothing he could do to prevent Hartlepool’s equaliser. Joel Asoro was full of running but his decision making was questionable, often taking a touch too many when getting into good positions but that running still proved dangerous enough to win the lads a penalty. That spot kick was delightfully dispatched by the most impressive of the trio, Josh Maja, who had the hold up play and awareness of someone way beyond his years - with a neat first touch to boot.
There were some rumblings of unrest after Pools pulled level. One lad, who had been stood near me for the second half, even stormed off muttering something along the lines of “fuckin’ shite this” as the game petered out. It did improve somewhat beyond his short assessment however, when Jeremain Lens, Wahbi Khazri and Didier Ndong were introduced from the substitutes bench.
The team were given some much needed energy and dynamism by Khazri, Ndong and Lens, making it the first time all evening that there was an obvious gulf in quality between the sides. Whether Lens or Khazri stay on Wearside is anyones guess, you would expect at least one of them to depart, but even if they do go they have to be replaced with a player that has a similar level of unpredictability.
Lens’ last gasp free kick was a true reminder of his quality. It will be hugely frustrating to see him leave - a genuine case of 'what might have been'.
Fair enough, the attitude of both Khazri and Lens may be questionable but I would still like to believe that giving them some freedom of expression and an arm around the shoulder could see them be successful here. They may have their eyes on pastures new, which I would understand, but just like Adel Taarabt inspired promotion out of a turbulent QPR, Lens and/or Khazri could do the same for Sunderland.
With or without them, there’s still work for Simon Grayson to do on his Sunderland side. The impending departure of Vito Mannone leaves us light between the sticks, the options in the centre of defence are still thin and we need at least another two strikers. This all added to an evening where Sunderland often failed to penetrate non-league opposition, gives Grayson one hell of a task.
That being said, at least there’s a sense of freshness about what he’s trying to do with the team. If he can just hang on to some of the quality in the side and boost it with a little more, it might not end up being the torrid season that we all thought we were in for.