With all this talk of a potential takeover and all of the off-the-pitch drama surrounding the club currently, I for one am glad for this week’s return to training of the people who will have the most important part to play - the current squad of players.
Circumstance has meant we currently have half a squad available, and our new scouting process - that has seen the removal of Richard Hill and Tony Coton - will need to be pretty much spot on when recruiting new players to ensure we finally return to the Championship.
With that being said, as lockdown has pushed me back to an old past time of Football Manager, I thought I’d take a look in detail at our squad and provide my views so that there may be an insight in what Phil Parkinson will need to be dealing with.
Firstly, I feel where we fell apart last summer was due to the fact Jack Ross recruited with the mind-set of still using a back four; just for preseason and the first few games of the season to be used as a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation. This meant that new players not only came into new surroundings, but had to get to grips with a plan that the existing players were yet to become comfortable with.
This time round, I believe Parky will stick with his three at the back and wing backs formation that started to provide a degree of success but fell apart when we needed a Plan B to change games in our favour. This clarity will make Parkinson decide what areas will need to be strengthened first.
At the moment we only have Lee Burge and Anthony Patterson on the books as the men between the posts after the unfortunate (but not at all surprising) loss of big Jon McLaughlin. Due to this, we will need a new goalkeeper to come in and this is where Parky will need to make his first big decision. He could stick by Burge, who although wasn’t spectacular of for us when he played last season but did not let us down either, and make him our new number one. This would mean a backup would only be needed and would make a move for a Ben Alnwick reasonable, to be come in as experienced cover and play only as an emergency or in cup games.
Alternatively, he could bring in someone to rival Burge and potentially be our main number one. This would be the option I would prefer, as I feel this would keep Burge on his toes and make him fight for the shirt. In terms of options, I feel the best option would be Matija Sarkic. He is a young, hungry goalkeeper who has just joined Wolves, but they have already stated he will be sent out on loan.
This would allow him to build on his own experience at a club that demands the best and he surely would bet on himself to make the position his, and relish the battle with Burge.
Moving onto our defence, and oh lord, doesn’t this need work! Up until last week we were just left with Jordan Willis after we released a number of our other defensive options. Thankfully, we were able to persuade Tom Flanagan to turn his back on reported Championship clubs to remain at the Stadium of Light. In my opinion, this is a clever decision, as he is good option at Championship level and Willis was our signing of last season; they provide a sound ground to start building on. If Parky is going to persist with 3 centre backs, I believe we need another 3three players to come in at this position.
I have high hopes that the return of Bailey Wright will be a pretty much done deal once he returns from his holidays. His performances after signing in January started to make us believe promotion was going to become a reality and his injury in the middle of February saw the decline in form which meant we missed out on the play offs.
Accompanying him I believe we should look to a defender that is dominant and prevent the silly goals we conceded from set pieces; notably the Gillingham draw. This is what brought me to Ben Heneghan. He’s a player we’ve been linked to in the past and has been mentioned previously on Roker Report. He has been released, so would not require a fee but apparently has Championship clubs sniffing around him, so we would have to work fast to ensure a deal of this nature is completed.
The last place in my defence is more than likely going to be one of the last decisions made by Parky. This is due to the fact he would have to weigh up whether he looks to our youth players, such as Brandon Taylor, or look to bring in someone else on a short term deal to provide back up. In my view, this would be a space to be filled by our younger players so that this can start to change the stigma of Sunderland selling their better youth products and actually benefitting on the pitch from the hard work put in at the Academy.
Full Backs are just as sparse, as we currently on have Conor McLaughlin, who is not best suited for this wing back system; and Denver Hume is ready made for this attacking style. Of course there is a player who has been shoehorned at right back, who I will come onto, but I feel Parkinson will look for players who can provide competition in the natural roles.
I am aware we have been linked to Robbie Williams, who plays right back and has been released by Hull City. The Hull supporters have been disappointed in this news as he was touted as one of their bright sparks of a dismal season, and would see a big club as Sunderland a place to nail down a starting position as his own.
As a challenger to Hume’s place at left back, there is one clear candidate in my mind - Luke Garbutt. He’s been released from Everton and played fairly decent last season with Ipswich - I recall him scoring against Sunderland - and he’d provide stern competition in a position that needs it.
Coming onto midfield, I don’t believe there is much work needed here. We currently have Max Power, George Dobson, Josh Scowen, Elliot Embleton (Who I won’t lie, I completely forgot about) and Grant Leadbitter. I feel this is a strong midfield with Dobson’s industry, Power’s goal scoring threat and captain’s mentality along with Scowen ball recovery and Embleton’s creativity - it should be enough for Parky with his two holding midfield options.
The only thought that comes into my mind is whether he feels Leadbitter, whose experience and love of the club is unquestionable; has a playing role with the club. If not, I feel he would need to look into a strong bully of a midfielder which we do not currently have. I believe we need someone in the ilk of a Dickson Etuhu or Alfred N’Diaye - someone who is just a brute in midfield - preventing us from being dominated in scrappy affairs like we had down at Wycombe.
Now looking at our creative options. I am over the moon, we have been able to extend the contract of Chris Maguire. He is a player who I feel has come into his own after the departure of Aiden McGeady (who I feel will not been seen in a Sunderland shirt again) and has become one of our game winners. Alongside him we have Lynden Gooch, who I believe kick started our promotion push with his wonder goals against Doncaster and MK Dons. This will be his season where he will be seen as a main threat in this Sunderland team - a huge expectancy will be placed on his and Maguire’s shoulders.
Next we have Luke O’Nien. There’s not much else that can be said about this lad, other than he is the ultimate fan favourite and I hope reports of Parkinson pushing to give him a new deal is completed, to get rid of any pesky rumours he may be returning to Wycombe. I believe this season we will push him back to his role of behind the striker, where he was more accustomed to at Adams Park, and see us recruit a new right back to cover this.
However I do feel we need one more option to compete with these grafters. Someone who has bags of quality and the swagger to provide goals and assists, and there is only one option that all Sunderland fans would argue makes sense: Marcus Maddison. Sunderland fan, dedicated to the cause, free transfer and history of performing in the league. He ticks all the boxes, but whether this takes shape in reality is something we’d have to wait and see.
I’d like to just also mention Jack Diamond, who has impressed down at Harrogate and has helped them get into the playoff positions. I watched the most recent semi-final and he was given man of the match. I feel he is another of the younger players at our disposal that should be integrated into our squad and played in cup matches to aid his development at a club of our size.
Now, the strikers - and we have Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke. I personally would give Grigg another chance within our team but I feel we would benefit from bringing the game to him to become a poacher as oppose to him chasing down defenders as we saw under Jack Ross. Charlie Wyke has become the number one striker for Parkinson and we did start to see some results, but he was snuffed out as soon as more than one defender was told to mark him.
As completion, I feel we definitely need one more striker and I just look at Armand Gnanduillet. He scored 15 goals in 30 games for Blackpool last season, and was one of the main reasons they looked on course for an expectant promotion push. He has also been released by Blackpool and is a name that has been mentioned previously by Sunderland fans as a strong powerful option; who I feel we have not had up front for a while.
Lastly I feel another striker is needed if Benji Kimpioka does indeed leave the club, which at the time of writing is looking more likely than signing a new deal. If so, it may be worthwhile looking into an experience back up option. As daft as it may seem, Danny Graham’s return after being released from Blackburn may not seem as farfetched in this regard and he may want to right some wrongs at the club, but I’d prefer a move for Adam LeFondre. He is currently with Sydney FC, but they are currently cost cutting so he may be released from his contract to take a crack at a big club in possibly his last career move at the age of 33.
So, in all we may need 10 players in order to ensure we are competing for promotion places come May next year. However all the options I have mentioned are mainly free transfers; so I feel if I can see this Parkinson and our new scouting team will be aware of being able to get decent players without paying premiums and being savvy in the market. However, as we all know supporting Sunderland, common sense is not always evident in these situations, so we will just have to cross our fingers and hope things fall into place by 16th October.