Sunderland AFC are about to play their first game of first-team football visible for viewing pleasure since they were unceremoniously beaten 2-0 by Bristol Rovers back on 10th March, the final game in the terminated season of 19/20.
Although there have allegedly been a few matches played, inter-squad and otherwise behind closed doors, this is the first friendly of Phil Parkinson’s pre-season that we’re actually finding out about directly from the club.
A trip up the road to the Gateshead International stadium might not be a venture to Portugal to take on its second-rate native sides, but it’s... something. It’s been five months since we got to see something, so please do continue to read this article about Sunderland’s gradual, incremental return to footballing normality, as they take on National League North side Gateshead.
What are Gateshead like these days?
Sunderland aren’t the only North East outfit to suffer the swinging scythe of relegation, nor are they alone in knowing the deep-seated unrest of financial turmoil.
A mere five years after missing out on promotion to the football league (losing the playoffs to Cambridge United in 2014) Gateshead’s accounts we called into question by the National League and, following a scrutiny which confirmed ‘financial irregularities’, they were demoted from the National League to the National League North, where they’ve played ever since.
Their threadbare first team consists of only sixteen senior players - the only notable name from a Sunderland fan’s perspective being former Newcastle defender Mike Williamson = who continues to play as a centre-back and is also the Heed’s manager.
What’s the ground like?
...is a fairly futile question to ask in an age where fans are unable to attend Stadiums en masse due to the continued existence of a global pandemic. However, I’ve typed out the subheading now and I’ve even highlighted it in bold, so I’m just going to plough on.
Situated a mere 20 minutes in the car from our own Stadium - the Gateshead International is likely a ground which you already know the baseline facts about. It’s clearly visible from its very own Metro stop; at one point you might have passed it on a typically mundane Metro commute, remarking that its actually quite nice relative to the general standard of Non-League stadia.
With a capacity of 11,800, it is the biggest stadium in the National League North and the second biggest in the National League pyramid overall - Notts County’s Meadow Lane being the only one more expansive, at 19,841.
Funnily enough, the record attendance for this ground was set during a friendly in 1995: 11,750 spectators watched Gateshead take on Newcastle. A sudden premonition tells me that isn’t going to change tomorrow.
What will we see from Sunderland?
Assuming Phil Parkinson has already overseen his side play out some games in pre-season, he will likely (hopefully) look to consolidate the formation and tactics they’ve been working on up until now.
Given that the club currently only have three senior centre-backs on the books, we may not see the 3-5-2 formation utilised for most of Parkinson’s tenure in the season prior. Rather, there may be a formation which instead accommodates a centre-back pairing - a possible opportunity to see which combination of Tom Flanagan, Jordan Willis and Bailey Wright can stake a claim to start the season.
It’ll be interesting to see if Aidan O’Brien is given the opportunity to lead the line as an out-and-out striker too, considering that Millwall fans claimed he wanted to leave so that he could finally get an opportunity in his preferred position up top.
Though the biggest point of interest for Sunderland fans will probably be the lesser-known names which turn out. We’ve apparently had a few lads on trial over the past few weeks and a number of different sources have linked us with the likes of Luke Garbutt, Demetri Mitchell, Arbenit Xhemajli and Sammie Szmodics, to name just a few. Might we see any of that lot in our red-and-white?
Hopefully some of the ambiguity and unanswered questions can be sorted when Saturday comes around. Honestly, it’s just refreshing to have football back - proper football. Sunderland football!
The whole game will be available to stream online.