The relentless schedule of League One next season will test our mettle for a third successive season. After one playoff final defeat and an eighth-place finish, it simply has to be success at the third attempt, and personally, I don’t mind if that comes with a title victory or not. As long as Sunderland are in the top two after forty-six games, that really is all that matters.
Consequently, the top end of the table is likely to be extremely congested, with perhaps eight or nine teams who will undoubtedly fancy their chances of promotion. With that in mind, here are five key games that might well have a significant impact on the outcome of our season.
When Joey Barton brought his ‘Cod Army’ to the SOL in February, he outfoxed Phil Parkinson on a tactical level by neutralising Sunderland’s threats in the shape of Maguire and Gooch, and very nearly swaggered away with a victory that would’ve inflicted huge damage upon our automatic promotion hopes.
As it was, Max Power scrambled a late equaliser, and we nabbed a thoroughly undeserved point. When we visit the Lancashire coast, Barton will be doubtless fired up to ensure his team turn us over, not least because of Fleetwood’s eventual playoff defeat to Wycombe and to see his team go one better this time around.
Knowing our luck, this game will take place on a rain-lashed Tuesday night, and will be the kind of game where footballing ability plays second fiddle to sheer guts and fortitude.
To the delight of very few Sunderland fans we have to face the team who, as Sky Sports have claimed for almost two years, have become something of a rival for Sunderland.
While the reasoning for this remains tenuous at best, barring our five meetings with them in 2018/2019, victory at Fratton Park is a non-negotiable this season. We haven’t won on the south coast in our last three attempts, and there seems to be something of a psychological barrier for us at this stadium, although we did hold them to a 0-0 draw.
Simply put, we have to negotiate the prospect of having to deal with the likes of John Marquis, Marcus Harness, and Ben Close yet again is not particularly appealing, but three points at their place would be a big tick in the box.
Wigan will be one of the teams who ought to be there or thereabouts in terms of the promotion race.
They will doubtless have been stung by their unjust relegation at the hands of the EFL, and will be hell-bent on righting a wrong by making an instant return to the Championship.
They might have lost the extremely capable Paul Cook as manager, but their visit to the SOL could certainly be one of our most important games of the season. Assuming that Will Grigg hasn’t been transferred by this time, will Parkinson give him a chance to make a point against his former club?
Hull City (Home)
The George Honeyman connection.
Our former skipper will return to the SOL on the opposing team, having dropped back into League One with his new team. Like Wigan, Hull will be desperate to make an instant return to the Championship, and with players like Malik Wilks and Tom Eaves, will pack some serious punch upfront.
Honeyman may Sunderland through and through, but he’ll certainly be eager to prove a point and to help his current employers pocket a crucial three points.
Ipswich Town (Away)
I have a hunch that Ipswich might be one of the dark horses for promotion this season.
With the ebullient Paul Lambert at the helm and a squad that, for all of its potential, underachieved to a surprising degree last season, they’ll certainly be under pressure to compete more strongly.
We haven’t won in East Anglia since an FA Cup tie in 2004 and in recent times, visits to Portman Road have often ended extremely badly (Jason Steele springs to mind here), and that is a record that must be changed if we want to make a push for the top two.