We have not had a consistently solid back four since Jody Craddock and Emerson Thome led a defence that included the likes of Thomas Sorensen and Micky Gray at the turn of the century.
During the 2016/17 season Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone established themselves as a formidable centre-back pair, but only for the last three months of the season. We were shown fleeting glimpses of what a water-tight defence looks like under Sam Allardyce towards the end of that season, but this mirage disappeared even faster than it appeared. We haven’t had a season of sustained shut-outs for nearly twenty years.
Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven (and now Juan Sartori too) invested in Sunderland because they see a long-term future. They see the potential to drag us back into the top-flight and, within a month of taking over, have restored the hope of the Sunderland faithful to the tune of 21,000+ season tickets.
But the positivity swelling round the club as the re-build takes shape must translate onto the pitch. Maybe not in the first few weeks as a wholly new squad takes time to gel, for that would be unrealistic. But after that, we have to become a club in the image of our owner: ambitious and ruthless.
You cannot build a house on shaky foundations. Everyone has heard that phrase before in one guise or another, from Abraham Lincoln to your local pub’s collection of beer mats, but it rings true for Sunderland AFC given how porous our defence has been in recent years.
For example, last season in the Championship we conceded 80 goals. That was the second most in the league - only Burton Albion conceded more. It didn’t matter that we scored more than the rest of the bottom six when we conceded more than two goals per game on average. That is a damning statistic and reflects our startling inability to keep the ball out of our own net.
Furthermore, the list of awful defenders we’ve had collect their pay packet at the club over the last five seasons makes you want to jab a fork in your eye: Papy Djilobodji, Billy Jones, Andrea Dossena and Marc Wilson to name but a few. And that’s before we get on to the three “goalkeepers” we had last season in Ruiter, Steele, and Camp. “Goalkeepers” used in the lightest sense of the term, obviously.
Jack Ross needs to prioritise fixing a leaky defence that has been our Achilles heel for way too long. By making two out of his first three signings a goalkeeper (Jon McLaughlin) and a centre-back (Alim Ozturk), it looks like he’s doing exactly that.
Ross tends to favour an attacking, possession-based game and deployed a 4-3-3 formation for much of his championship-winning season at St Mirren. His teams never struggle when it comes to putting the ball in the onion bag.
Last season, in 36 games they scored 63 goals, finishing 12 points clear of second-placed Livingston.
However, less publicised when he signed on to become our manager, Jack Ross also built a solid defence from the ashes of a team who had survived the season before on goal difference.
The similarities with Sunderland are clear to see. In the 2016/17 season, St Mirren conceded 56 goals, with only bottom-played Ayr United conceding more. Yet, Jack Ross, who had steadied the ship when he was appointed midway through that season, used the following summer to instill his football philosophy on the team and nearly halved the number of goals they conceded the following season. In fact, only Dunfermline conceded fewer than them when St Mirren won the title last year - and that was only by one goal.
Crucially, it looks like Jack Ross knows how to organise a defence at clubs who historically have porous backlines.
It is likely that the only defenders who remain at the club after the transfer window closes are Adam Matthews and Donald Love. So, aside from the right-back position, a whole new defence is needed.
In Jon McLaughlin we have signed a ‘keeper who comes in after having the best season of his career at Hearts. Alim Ozturk is a centre-back who has worked with Ross before, and comes to League One with great pedigree having played in the Turkish top flight and Scottish top flight.
Plenty more will need to be signed in the next six weeks to give Jack Ross every chance of building a strong defensive unit; however, the early signs under our new manager are promising. It’s particularly encouraging that Ross has experience when it comes to fixing leaky defences, and he has clearly earmarked that as a priority in his early transfer dealings.
Ultimately, I want the Stadium of Light to become a fortress once more. A place where away teams know they’ll have to work hard to score - unlike last season where they could just turn up and be guaranteed a goal. I want us to build the foundations of our new team from the back, creating a platform for success as we look to rebuild the club under our new owners.
Call me boring, but bring on the clean sheets!