After Sunderland’s relatively underwhelming second season in the third tier of English football petered out in the midst of Covid-19, many fans would be forgiven for turning their attention away from football for a while.
The pandemic highlighted the fact that there are more important things to be concerned about. In particular, our health and that of our family and friends, which we were reminded are the most important things in life.
When live football returned to the screen, played behind closed doors with canned ambiance, it didn’t interest me all that much because it wasn’t Sunderland - and our season had been ended so abruptly, and arguably unfairly.
However, now that Sunderland have been in pre-season training for several weeks, and the new season is just on the horizon - albeit likely with reduced attendances - the tingle of excitement has rekindled at the prospect of being able to watch the Lads play again.
This summer has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. From the season ticket debacle, to Stewart Donald’s tense meeting with fan groups, to Tony Coton and Richard Hill’s exit from the club, to Stewart Donald’s resignation as Chairman, to the seeming imposition of a frugal salary cap and squad limitations, to eyebrow raising finances, to constant murmurs of takeovers from every direction. Every week seems like something new.
For many fans a return to the pitch will be a welcome distraction from the off-field issues that have seemed to plague the club for what feels like an eternity now.
For me, it’s a small spark of hope that sputters on eternally - a hope that perhaps this is the year that things click and Sunderland find some success.
Every year it’s there for me, no matter what came before. The hesitations and issues linger in the back of the mind, but there is always a romantic notion that a new season equates to a clean slate - a chance to forget last season’s deficiencies and instead do something special.
For Sunderland, the long break has been a chance to rest, recuperate, and formulate a plan to find promotion at the third time of asking. Phil Parkinson has been trusted to take this team forward, and it will be interesting to see how he sets this side up in the summer friendlies.
When he arrived on Wearside, Parkinson put an emphasis on defence by opting to field three central defenders with wing backs offering input both defensively and offensively. But will he continue to operate in the same way this coming season?
Or, now that Parkinson has the chance to spend an entire summer moulding this team into the style he wants to play, will he maybe play a more adventurous brand of football? It’s questions like this that build the anticipation for me.
The new season brings fresh possibilities, the blank canvas a chance to see something new. Could we see the Will Grigg we thought we’d be signing back in 2019? Can the likes of Elliot Embleton and Jack Diamond stake their claim for a spot in the starting line up? Will Aiden O’Brien be the bright, lively forward we’ve lacked at times?
There’s so many questions and so many possibilities. Of course, as we’ve seen so often, Sunderland might well struggle. But right now, at the start of the journey, all that lies ahead is opportunity - and that’s what twitches my excitement.