As I write, the start of a new season is fast approaching, now only two weeks away. I'm still having to ask myself how I'm feeling. I'm not sure what to make of our pre-season as a whole, but as I said previously, I think we can still take a lot from what we learn in the month of July.
I'd say at this point, I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll be fine, and that our plummet down through the divisions won't happen after all as some of us (including me) were erratically contemplating in those few tense weeks of takeover talks. We have managed to bring in some signings to bolster the squad, but at the same time, players are leaving for pastures new.
With Vito Mannone leaving, signing a goalkeeper has become a priority. If the season was to kick off tomorrow, I'd be tempted to choose Max Strjek over Mika - though to be honest, I'm not entirely sure why.
I'm yet to meet a single one of our supporters who seems to rate Mika, or believes he should be given a chance. He was a million miles away from playing last season, and Simon Grayson has said publicly this week that he's been impressed with Strjek. That of course won't prevent Sunderland from going into the market in the coming days for a more experienced stopper. Our back line has looked extremely porous in our friendly matches, carrying over those oh-so-evident defensive frailties from last season.
In short, there are still some drastic surgery to perform at our football club. We’re far from dead on the operating table, but we’re yet to be discharged from the Intensive Care Unit. Only some more decent incoming transfers can assuage our constant, uneasy feeling.
I recently read an interview in The Mirror with newly-appointed Manchester United club Captain Michael Carrick. In it, Carrick spells out United’s aspirations and targets for the season, saying that winning the title is “all or nothing” for everyone connected with the club. It is worth mentioning that United picked up three trophies last season, as well as qualifying for the Champions League - albeit through the back door.
Carrick’s mentality is striking. He has won everything there is to win at Old Trafford, but continues to emphasise the importance of continual success. Anything else is seen as a failure. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane were the same. Keane had an insatiable appetite to succeed. Giggs tucked away his medals in a drawer, already thinking of the next one to win. He could look at them all when he’d hung up his boots. Carrick is a highly talented player, but the mentality he possesses has undoubtedly prolonged his career at United.
The point that I’m trying to make is that, as well as possessing the necessary talent to succeed at a club like Manchester United, the psyche that a player needs to have to win and remain at the club season after season isn’t found in many players. A lot of talent hasn’t been fulfilled at Old Trafford; the likes of Memphis Depay, Angel Di Maria and Wilfried Zaha all had tough spells there. Carrick rightly says that it is a “monster” of a club, arguably the biggest in the world, and some players simply cannot handle that kind of pressure and exposure.
Many comparisons have been made already between our situation now and the one that we found ourselves in during the 2006/07 season under Roy Keane, although the Irishman did have a lot more money to play with than Grayson does now. We had the clout to have a real go at promotion then, but nevertheless, the right type of player and the right sort of characters needed to be brought to the club.
Keane got some wrong of course, but what manager doesn’t? He signed players like Graham Kavanagh, Dwight Yorke and David Connolly; players he trusted and knew were what he required to get us out of the mess we found ourselves in. After that 2-0 defeat in the cup to Bury, a title push looked a million miles away for Sunderland, yet we finished on top of the pile. Keane’s side weren't the most entertaining, but they were gritty and workmanlike.
Our team spirit grew with each passing match, gaining momentum at a crucial point of our season. The job is certainly tougher for Simon Grayson. He hasn’t got £30-£40m to go and blow on a dozen players. He has to be extremely conservative with the resources we have, and so far, I’d say he’s done reasonably well. He’s already found out at this early stage of his tenure about some of the problems that lie within the corridors of the Academy of Light - and, as he has already stated, he has no time for players that do not want to be here.
For far too long now players have came here for an easy ride, and that has to change.
I think Simon Grayson will implement that change, but it will take time. The ball has started rolling. I want players here who are proud to play for Sunderland - players that will work for the team and our supporters, who will roll up their sleeves and will play with pride and honour.
We’ll lose games, sure, but we won’t feel angry or short-changed. We won’t loath the eleven that we see on the pitch in the way that we did last season.
We need the feel-good factor back at the Stadium of Light. We need a team all singing from the same hymn sheet. We need a team we all want to come and watch.
As the song goes, here we are now - entertain us...