In a summer that has been dogged by off-the-field tension between supporters and owners, confusion over season tickets, and endless (and often ridiculous) takeover talk, finally the focus is returning to the actual point of all this craziness - watching Sunderland AFC perform on the pitch.
The Lads have had their first competitive fixture confirmed - a League Cup tie against fellow Premier League drop-outs Hull City on 5th September - and thousands of football-starved Mackems will be logging on to Gateshead’s live stream this coming Saturday to watch the first open friendly of this pre-season.
Here are the three things that are giving me cause for optimism as the new season draws ever nearer...
#1 - Fans should be back in the Stadium of Light in October
Behind the scenes, the excellent staff at Sunderland AFC have been working away to get fans back into the Stadium of Light, hopefully in October. If test events can be held successfully, if the reproduction rate of Covid-19 remains at comparatively low levels, then it might just be possible.
Sunderland has a 49,000 capacity stadium with a big concourse and plenty of room around the ground to set up the necessary infrastructure, which is a good start. The limit of 12,000 season tickets will control demand and is likely to make the process more manageable.
Sunderland look set to announce their plans soon, according to reports from a dedicated meeting between fan groups and officials held this week. It appears that Season Card holders will have a seven day period to register on the SAFC ticketing website, and from this data the club and the authorities will be able to calculate a maximum capacity for the ground.
The club will be using all of its communication channels to get the message out there to fans of all ages that they need to get online, and help their friends and relatives to get online, and take part in the process in order to ensure they don’t miss out. But I’d also expect there will also be options for registration to be done over the phone or in person if required.
Advice and guidance from Government and the football authorities is evolving as the evidence from experiments with managing crowds at large events emerges. Whatever happens, it will be a proper logistical nightmare for staff at the club and the council to organise.
When we do know the details it will require everyone to show patience and understanding, and to follow instructions to the letter in order for it to work. But a bit of compliance is a small price to pay for the most loyal fans being able to indulge their passion of watching the famous red and white stripes live, and for the rest of us to hear that familiar roar over the radio or online, once more.
#2 - We have (so far) kept hold of our best players
There was a period earlier this year when the prospect of Sunderland loosing some of our best players seemed pretty real; one could imagine a scenario where an ambitious Championship club would look at the likes of Luke O’Nien, Jordan Willis, Lynden Gooch and even Denver Hume and, seeing the mess behind the scenes at the Stadium of Light, try to tempt them away with offers of a few more quid a month and the promise of challenging for a place in the big time.
Thankfully, this hasn’t materialised - or at least not yet.
The retention of what I consider to be the core of our best starting 11 - with only Jon McLaughlin departing to play football at a higher level - gives the club the kind of consistency and stability that has been sorely missing for much of the last decade. Another season of Hume and Gooch, and O’Nien and Maguire, combining down the flanks safe in the knowledge that a calm and consistent defence and a mobile midfield will be there to cover, gives me cause for optimism.
Still, though, finding our goalscoring form is vitally important, and I’m also going to stick my neck on the line here and say that the man I’m most interested to see play when Sunderland return to action - especially without the pressure of fans in the ground initially - is Will Grigg.
Confidence is such an important factor for a striker, and in his interview with The Athletic in June, Grigg made it clear that the impact on his form of missing one or two chances he would usually have bagged was huge. If Phil Parkinson, or others on the coaching staff, can boost the lad’s self-esteem, we could see him return to the kind of form that saw him score 28 in a League 1 season for Wigan a few years back.
Surely he wants to prove his worth and regain his international place ahead of the rescheduled Euros next year, and so I hope he takes the opportunity of behind-closed-doors football to play with freedom. Hope Springs Eternal, after all.
#3 - The new lads look quality and more should follow
The two first-team signings of the summer so far have been almost universally welcomed by Sunderland supporters.
Bailey Wright is undoubtedly an experienced international footballer, a leader and a quality player for this level of the game. His introduction to Sunderland’s back line earlier in the year coincided with a run of clean sheets, and his signing on a permanent deal is likely to be the most important bit of business we’ll do for a while. If we can keep him fit, Sunderland, with Willis and Flanagan alongside Wright, should prove to be very difficult to break down for most of our League 1 rivals.
If the defence is looking more solid than at any time since we dropped out of the Premier League, the biggest concern is surely our performance in the goals scored for column. Last season we achieved the miserable honour of being the third lowest ranked side in terms of average goals scored per game (2.22, with only Gillingham and Shrewsbury being less prolific).
Former Millwall forward Aiden O’Brien has left his London home to join us, with the hope that he’ll be played in an advanced forward role where he should provide direct competition for both Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke. The Irish international’s highlights reel, as well as the reaction of the Millwall fans to his departure, suggests we’ve brought in a Championship level player with a hunger for the chance to score some goals.
Whatever you might think of his style, Phil Parkinson is an experienced manager who knows the EFL inside out. We will have to wait and see if any of the three U23 players we’ve recruited - winger Vinnie Steels, from Burnley’s academy; midfielder Sam Wilding, who impressed on whilst on trial Sunderland last season; and young Welsh defender Bobby Beaumont from Wrexham - will feature in his plans at all.
The salary and squad caps have put a whole new gloss on the current rebuild with the need to focus on youth, and with no Head of Recruitment or Academy Director yet in place and a takeover still on the cards, each signing this summer will be Parky’s choice.
The consensus seems to be that, if we can bring in another striker - someone with pace who can stretch opposition defences - plus a full back or two, another centre back and another creative midfielder, then we’re in good shape to make a great start to the new campaign and really dominate the division this time round.
But the fact that we do still look thin on the ground across a good few positions is making many fans anxious; there are some decent players being picked up by other clubs in and around us.
I think the signings will come - especially if the ownership situation is resolved relatively quickly and more funds are made available for promotion bonuses and even transfer fees. We also must not forget playing for our great club, in our great city, in front of our amazing fans, with world-class facilities, remains a most attractive prospect for any professional footballer looking for a new employer over the next few weeks.
We’re a bit light, aren’t we... pic.twitter.com/veUsfsifZc— Roker Report (@RokerReport) August 19, 2020