Twelve months ago many Sunderland fans were embracing the prospect of playing in the Championship as an opportunity to clear the decks, rid ourselves of over-paid, under-performing players, rebuild and win a few games.
Yet, as we come to the end of the season we are once more wondering if relegation might bring an opportunity to rebuild and recover. It would, of course, largely depend on the club being sold, but even then, would playing at a lower level give opportunities to a few of our academy players? Can Chris Coleman unearth some gems from the lower leagues to supplement our youngsters?
We have three games left - Burton at home, Fulham away, then Wolves back at the Stadium of Light. There is an argument that we need to keep going and, of course, we do. But rather than play the same eleven in the next three games, could Coleman decide to start the rebuilding process early?
Earlier this week Chris Coleman brought some frustrating news, that Donald Love, Lynden Gooch, Jonny Williams and Joel Asoro won’t play again this season due to injury.
They join Duncan Watmore, Tyias Browning and Robbin Ruiter on the list of players we won’t see before this torturous campaign is over, whilst at least five others are carrying knocks. Whether he likes it or not, the Sunderland manager may well need to look to his U23s side in order to fill in a couple of the spaces in his matchday squads for the remaining three games of the season.
With players out of contract and others returning to their loan clubs our already threadbare squad will be decimated in just a few weeks. Add in those who will likely leave or be sold, then now could be the time to check out what we have and what positions we will need to fill with new recruits.
Lee Camp will return to Cardiff City in the summer and I can’t imagine many Sunderland supporters will shed a tear when he does. Robbin Ruiter is injured and won’t play again this season.
Jason Steele is still under contract and a decision has to be made whether he can regain enough confidence over pre-season to prove more effective in League One. Given the fact that Blackburn let him go after their own relegation and, after his performances in a Sunderland shirt this season, the road back may be too much of an ask.
It’s safe to say our goalkeepers have cost us more points than we can care to remember and I’m sure Coleman will look to bring in at least one new face over the summer.
At the start of April the Sunderland manager said that U23s ‘keeper Max Stryjek was not quite ready yet for first team football:
If I thought he was ready I would try him, but there are certain things he needs to do before he plays. He’s been out on loan and did OK, but I don’t think he’s ready to play for us yet.
We’ve got Lee and Jason and it has been up and down for the pair of them, they’ve had the critics. But I don’t think Max is at that level yet with his experience that he comes in and plays for us, certainly not in the position that we’re in.
That phrase - the position we’re in - has surely changed. Even though it’s not mathematically overyet, we play Burton Albion next - we are likely to meet them again next season and so they would be a good test for young Max.
Even if he wasn’t thrown in against Fulham or Wolves, he’d have had a chance to stake a claim to be one of the keepers to carry forward into the next campaign.
We’re likely to see a mass exodus of defenders in the summer, with John O’Shea, Marc Wilson, Lamine Kone, Papy Djilobodji, Bryan Oviedo and Billy Jones all likely to move on before the end of the summer transfer window. Jake Clarke-Salter, Brendan Galloway and Ty Browning will be back at their parent clubs, which potentially only leaves us with Adam Matthews and Donald Love.
It’s fair to say we will need to focus most of our attention on recruiting in defensive positions.
One player who may stake a claim is someone who has already made our bench this season - Owen Gamble. With Love and, potentially, both Matthews and Jones missing on Saturday, we will need someone to fill in at right back. It is a huge ask, granted, but nevertheless, it presents Coleman with an opportunity.
Jonny Williams, Ovie Ejaria, Wahbi Khazri, Fabio Borini and hopefully Jack Rodwell should all be gone in the summer, meaning we will need new blood in the engine room.
Lee Cattermole and Aiden McGeady are high earners and could be shifted along, meaning that we’ll likely be in the market for a high volume of midfielders this summer.
In Ethan Robson, Paddy McNair, George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch and Callum McManaman we have some decent options for that level, but they won’t be able to carry us through the whole season and bringing in players that can offer athleticism, goals and height will be key to how Sunderland push on next season.
Sunderland do have a couple of emerging talents in midfield in the form of Elliot Embleton and Luke Molyneux, and with Lynden Gooch out injured at least one of them could find themselves making the matchday squad before the season is over. Like Styjek, Coleman hinted earlier in the month that Embleton wasn’t ready for the Sunderland first team, but that next season could be different story.
Luke Molyneux offers another interesting alternative for Coleman, and in truth if any of the U23s players has earned their chance to get a shot in the first team it has been him. He’s undoubtedly been the best player in our second-string side this season and unlike some of the others he offers something a little bit different - good core strength, a turn of pace and above all else the ability to take on his man and score goals from wide positions.
Even if he didn’t start, Molyneux should surely make the bench for the final games as a viable alternative to those who do get the nod ahead of him.