It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a significant reason for Sunderland’s failure to get promoted last season was due to the departure of Josh Maja to Bordeaux in January.
As Stewart Donald described to our very own Roker Rapport podcast at the time - it was a “bad deal”. To be fair to the current ownership, the “bad deal” was determined by circumstances caused by the previous regime.
However, it could also be argued those circumstances were dealt with too late to avoid what eventually happened in January.
Maja’s agent found himself a dream situation of representing a teenage client with his contract in its final year, combined with an impressive scoring record. This bittersweet combo for us, meant the prospects of our top scorer leaving would become more inevitable as Christmas approached.
After his last game on 19th January, where he opened the scoring away to Scunthorpe United in a game that surprisingly ended in a 1-1 draw, Maja’s Sunderland record for 2018-19 would read 16 goals in 25 games (in all competitions).
Despite his record, the circumstances, described by Stewart Donald, dictated that Sunderland only received £1.5m up front for his services.
Sunderland would eventually play 25 more games in 2018-19, so a season haul of 25-30 goals wasn’t out of the question in his debut season as a first choice striker.
There were other factors involved, but Sunderland scored eight more goals in the first 23 league games than we did in the second half of the league campaign last season.
Up to this point Charlie Wyke, due to injury and Maja’s good form, had only started five games. So the ranks were quite rightly boosted by the marquee signing of Will Grigg in January for around double the money received from Bordeaux for Josh Maja.
Both have managed to fairly successfully find the net in League One for previous clubs, but Grigg would end the 2018-19 season with four league goals (from 17 starting appearances) and Wyke would go one better and end with a disappointing five (from 19 starting appearances).
It would be a surprising move from Jack Ross if we didn’t go into the 2019-20 season with the plan to have Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke as our main strikers (either as a pair or as this season, to back each other up). They would then, in theory at least, be backed up by Duncan Watmore, younger players from the ranks or a loan signing.
It’s fair to say the jury is still out on the two strikers at Sunderland who were brought to the club last season to take us back to the second tier, and as things currently stand, much is riding on their form next season.
Looking back at our previous eight promotion seasons, the only exception to having two players in double figures or a single player scoring over twenty league goals throughout a season was 1995-96.
This anomaly occurred when Peter Reid’s side scored fewer than fourteen other sides in the division, but conceded twelve less than the next best defensive record on their way to winning the title.
Top League Scorers in Previous Sunderland Promotion Years
1975-76 - Bryan Robson (13), Mel Holden (12), Tony Towers (10)
1979-80 - Bryan Robson (20), Stan Cummins (12)
1987-88 – Marco Gabbiadini (21), Eric Gates (19), John MacPhail (16)
1989-90 – Marco Gabbiadini (22)
1995-96 – Craig Russell (13), Phil Gray (8)
1998-99 – Kevin Phillips (23), Niall Quinn (18), Daniele Dichio (10)
2004-05 – Marcus Stewart (16), Stephen Elliott (15)
2006-07 – David Connolly (13), Daryl Murphy (10)
During 2018-19 Aiden McGeady broke into double figures ending on eleven league goals for the season, but instead of supporting Maja’s continuing exploits, he increasingly became the main player we looked to for a goal during the second half of the season.
A similar haul this season from the Republic of Ireland international would be needed if Ross is to continue with the policy of playing a lone striker, which looks likely. Although, this season we would need to avoid the over-reliance on the winger that we have seen since February this year.
Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke will no doubt be aiming to be the players to, at the very least, achieve 10-15 goals this season.
This is not something out of the ordinary for these two strikers; Wyke accomplished this feat for Bradford City during 2017-18, ending on 15 goals. Grigg meanwhile has pulled this off on four separate occasions for Walsall, MK Dons and Wigan Athletic, scoring over 20 or more in two of those seasons.
It could possibly take an overhaul of tactics from Jack Ross to get the best out of the two strikers during the coming season. They have very different qualities and have had a varying degree of success when utilised as a pair.
Alternatively, a change in personnel behind them to create more chances might be the order of the day for the manager. It was well documented that chances created by Sunderland per game were thin on the ground when compared to our promotion rivals.
It may simply be a case of hitting the ground running, and gaining a bit of confidence early in the season to kick on.
Chances are that if these two players hit the form that they are capable of, then we’ll very likely be promoted, and they will end up being spoke about for years to come in the same context as the Gabbiadini’s and MacPhail’s of the world.
If not, the likelihood is they’ll either be joined by someone else, replaced, or we’ll be in League One for a third successive season. Let’s hope they thrive on pressure.