It’s fair to say there will be a sense of expectation enveloping the Stadium of Light at 2:50pm on Saturday 3rd August. With another slog of a season ahead of us, and fan restlessness still simmering, a ‘statement’ result against Oxford would be the ideal way to kick off the new campaign.
With that in mind, Jack Ross’s team selection for the opening game of the season will be a source of great interest, not least because of the pre-season form of three of our exciting young prospects, Elliot Embleton, Ruben Sammut, and the talented-yet-unpredictable Benji Kimpioka.
All three players might well, as it stands, have a good chance of featuring in the curtain-raiser. With a final friendly against Heerenveen lined up, and with players like Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire still on the comeback trail, it’s a given that once our squad is fully-fit there will be some fierce competition for places, particularly in attacking areas.
As to these three young prospects, each of them brings their own attributes. Embleton, fresh from signing a new contract last week, turned in a classy, composed performance against Belenenses and Benfica, whilst Kimpioka, a pacy, well-balanced attacker, has been equally positive in his play, driving forward and always trying to make things happen. He can be erratic, and has much to learn, but the raw components are all there.
Sammut, meanwhile, has showed flashes of his ball-playing talent in both of his appearances so far. Barring a sudden breakthrough, the demand for attacking signings will most likely reach fever pitch heading into the Oxford game, but what if this trio make a serious impact during the game, and suddenly find themselves integral to the first team?
Perhaps - and it is a long shot - the answers are right in front of us, as opposed to hiding somewhere in the transfer market.
I’ve always believed that one positive byproduct of playing third-tier football is that it offers clubs the time and the space to develop their youth prospects and to prove that academies are not merely for show, breeding young players who never make the first team but instead get farmed out to here, there and everywhere.
The Academy of Light is not La Masia, but it is producing players with promise, and that is something to be welcomed. Sunderland, as a club that is so central to the local community, has regularly embraced the idea of homegrown players.
In recent years however that notion has been somewhat neglected at the expense of pricey ‘big-name’ signings, but perhaps - and given how many games we are likely to have to play this season - it is something we can rekindle.
The burning question is: does Jack Ross trust these players enough to throw them into what will undoubtedly be a frenetic opening game? It stands to reason that if he shows faith in them, they will do everything in their power to repay him.
On the other hand, friendlies against Benfica B and Belenenses are a world away from the SOL on a league match day, and there is no doubt that should they become central to the first team these players will need a good deal of mental strength, particularly when things don’t go their way.
None of them are the finished article, and patience will undoubtedly be needed from fans and coaches alike. I am also certain that players such as Leadbitter and Honeyman, as former academy graduates themselves, will be on hand to offer support and guidance wherever it is needed.
Much has been made of Jack Ross’s ‘overly-cautious’ and defensive approach, some of it fair, some of it not, but he has already hinted at a change of approach for the season ahead by virtue of experimenting with new formations during pre-season.
As far as deploying a more attacking style goes he will undoubtedly have to grasp the nettle at some stage, so why not make it the first game of the season? An exciting performance and result against Oxford, with some creative flair and attacking spark on display, would be the perfect way to set the tone.