Tonight sees Sunderland face Derby County in the opening game of the Championship campaign and after a summer of change on Wearside, fans will be eager to see how Simon Grayson’s men fare in their first competitive game.
It’s been a mixed bag in pre-season if truth be told, but it's certainly been a relief to have someone like Simon Grayson in charge.
He’s not flash, he’s not perhaps a footballing revolutionary, but he feels like a man eager to succeed and he has given most a good feeling that Sunderland can progress going forward. Compare Grayson's opening sentiments to Moyes’ stream of constant negativity ahead of last term's relegation dross and there’s no real comparison.
With reports that the club have sold around 20,500 season tickets ahead of the coming campaign, the atmosphere should be a canny one tonight that will help drive the players on to a positive result in their maiden Championship contest. That will depend on general sales too, of course, but hopefully we as fans can help cultivate a daunting atmosphere at the SoL - something that’s been missing for a long time.
Anyone interested in reading about Derby fans’ thoughts ahead of tonight’s game should give our Fan Focus a read. Sunderland face a couple of squad selection dilemmas but tonight's team largely picks itself as Grayson continues his rebuild.
After securing two fresh goalkeepers in the last week or so, the Black Cats boss has indicated which way he will go between the sticks but he has a call to make still.
Robbin Ruiter impressed in pre-season showings but the signing of Jason Steele from Blackburn left fans wondering who will be the club’s new number one.
Ruiter was keen to tell followers of his new club how desperate he was to sign:
It’s such a big club and for me it was always a dream to play in England, so if a club like Sunderland comes and asks if you want to sign, it’s a big chance.
But Grayson was quick to play down expectations that Ruiter will automatically take the starting shirt:
I would have thought [Ruiter will miss out] – he’s not trained too much since going back to Holland after the Scunthorpe game.
He’ll have a few more sessions probably for the Bury game (in the Carabao Cup next Thursday) and then obviously the next game after that is Norwich (on Sunday, August 13).
Grayson hinted that Steele will be the first choice keeper for tonight despite a shaky start against Celtic last weekend:
I don’t blame him too much in terms of his performance – I don’t think other people really helped him out.
When you look back, he made some good saves – he’ll be disappointed with the mistakes of one or two people in front of him.
Any more wobbles though, will certainly see the solid Dutchman given his chance to continue an impressive opening start to life at the club.
When asked by the local press if he knew who would be starting tonight’s game, Grayson said:
In terms of Friday night, I know what it [the team] is going to be. Do I know what it is going to be in a couple of weeks time, no, because I’ve made the point many times, the window should shut before the season starts.
We do know Jeremain Lens won't feature and will probably be unveiled in Turkey at some point today.
Regarding injuries, Grayson provided an update on the squad’s health - including those of long-term absentees Watmore and McNair:
Ultimately as well we’ll have two players coming back after the international week who are going to be heavily involved this season in Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore.
Bryan Oviedo suffered a calf injury at the Confederations Cup which wasn’t ideal, he’s doing a lot of running and it's probably a week or so before he’ll be back in contention. Before you know it you’ve got three key players back in your squad. Jack Rodwell, who'd been injured for around ten days, is back in training as well.
Finally, Grayson also gave some news on Josh Maja and Wahbi Khazri, who have also struggled with niggles lately:
Maja will probably be struggling, he’s still got his knee injury. It isn’t anything major, there’s a chance that the following weekend he might be available. Wahbi has trained again after the weekend so he will be available I should think.
SAFC’s Starting XI: Steele, Jones, Browning, Kone, Galloway, Ndong, Cattermole, McGeady, Khazri, Grabban, Vaughan.
Score: I think Sunderland are still finding their feet, and will need to make a really good start if they are to secure a result against Derby. The Rams are pretty settled under Rowett and will be eager to cause an upset. Deep down I see this being a boring game with little to shout about; however, I’m hoping the likes of Khazri and Grabban will ignite the match and help us on to a 2-1 win!