The summer of 2017 marked Sunderland’s first pre-season venture as a second-tier outfit in a decade, and was overseen by the remarkably second-rate manager Simon Grayson.
While this particular string of friendlies will prove to have little in common with the one we’ve just witnessed, one feature the two campaigns do share is their equally uninspiring geography that comes as a consequence of being a Football League side with a depleted budget.
Gone are the days of sporadic excursions to Portugal and the US; no longer do we spend our summers seeing the Lads play third-tier Swiss teams and losing 3-1 to Pachuca. No, in the last couple of years we’ve had to settle for comparably less glamorous encounters with fellow northern outfits and an array of Scottish sides.
Ultimately though, all that truly matters is that the players have the fundamental opportunities to get themselves back into the swing of things before the competitive leagues start back up again - and runouts against the likes of Bury, Livingston and Scunthorpe to name a few would be perfectly sufficient prior to the beginning of the 2017/18 campaign.
Now, let’s look at each of those games in more detail...
Sunderland played Bury at Gigg Lane in the first of eight pre-season fixtures, and started things off on the right note as they ran out 3-2 winners, coming back from a 2-0 deficit which they’d slumped to with only twenty-seven minutes played. Watford’s future England captain Jack Rodwell pulled one back for the Black Cats before Josh Maja netted a quickfire double late in the second half, ensuring the Lads left victorious.
The next opponents were SPL side Hiberian. Sunderland were two goals ahead at Easter Road thanks to wantaway duo Wahbi Khazri and Jeremain Lens, but Hibs then nabbed two themselves and the match ended 2-2. Livingston were our third opponents, and were beaten by three goals without reply as Lens, Khazri and Joel Asoro all netted.
We then got plastered 3-0 by St. Johnstone before beating Hartlepool 2-1 in our annual meeting with them, which saw Lens net a ninetieth minute winner after Maja’s opener was cancelled out.
Then came another entertaining 3-2 win, this time against Bradford City, which consisted of Sunderland taking a three goal lead through Maja (again), Lens (again) and Billy Jones (lol) before almost cocking it all up in the second half.
The final two matches were a goalless stalemate at Scunthorpe and the only home fixture against Celtic which, quite frankly, I have no desire to talk about.
On the surface, it wasn’t the worst pre-season in the world. There were certainly positives to take from it, but so too were there negatives which ran deeper than the numbers on Wikipedia I pulled up to write this article.
The aura of defeatism Moyes left encompassing the club was evidently not completely dispelled by the new manager and signings. Indeed, this tendency to collapse was prevalent on numerous occasions from the start of the pre-season through to its conclusion - when Bury netted their opener in the first game, it took them a mere eight minutes to nab their second; when the lads went a goal down to St. Johnstone on the nineteenth minute, the found their deficit trebled by the twenty-fourth; when Celtic took the lead... well... you get the picture.
Moreover, two of the standout performers of those eight games were players who had absolutely no intention of sticking around any longer than it took a new suitor to find them - and it should be blatantly obvious that I’m talking about Jeremain Lens and Wahbi Khazri here.
Together, the two scored six of Sunderland’s thirteen pre-season goals, meaning they were making a substantial contribution to a first team that would be without them once it was time to play games with actual significance.
So yeah, perhaps the writing on the wall was more carved with more clarity than we cared to admit in our desperate attempts to uncover newfound optimism. Now, let’s recount our happenings this summer - which, by the same logic, read more like a prophecy than a premonition.
We only played five friendlies this time round (or four and a half, if you want to be technical), and the trajectory of Sunderland’s performances makes for a reassuring read.
After starting things on a worrying note by losing 1-0 to sixth-tier side Darlington, the Black Cats steadily improved by going on to draw 1-1 with National League side Hartlepool, followed by a 1-0 win over League Two team Grimsby Town and a skulduggerish return to Scotland thanks to a 6-0 demolition of the SPL’s St. Mirren. The final game away to Middlesbrough was goalless at half time and was subsequently called off due to the spontaneously unplayable weather conditions.
Sunderland’s progression from loss, to draw, to win to battering against opposition of a relatively higher standard with each passing fixture shows that Jack Ross’ side has gradually come together, improving week upon week as the players themselves look more and more self-assured and the standout performers look to have been cemented as certs for the roles of first team regulars.
George Honeyman, for example, could’ve had the same impact on our pre-season as Jeremain Lens did. Like I said before, Lens played a key role in most of our summer friendlies back in 2017, only to leave for Besiktas before our Championship campaign started.
Similarly, Honeyman - who many have tipped to be a solid component of a third-tier midfield engine - could have easily performed well in our friendlies only to leave for a club like Sheffield Wednesday, but Jack Ross’ decision to hand him the captaincy bestows upon him a responsibility that will give him the necessary incentive to commit himself to our cause.
I don’t think I’ll be alone in saying that, compared to last season, our prospects look a lot more promising if pre-season friendlies are anything to go by!