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“Keep the faith, fellow Mackems!”

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“There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that, despite all our troubles, Sunderland AFC might just be having a half-decent summer” says Roker Report’s Malcolm “Glass-Half-Full” Dugdale...

Sunderland Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If this was a “normal” season (as normal as life gets being a Sunderland fan these days), void of the afflictions brought about by Covid 19 and the rules forced on sports clubs to assure health and safety for all, we would have played our first game of the season around the time of my writing this article.

In the first few days of August last year, that game was a home tie against Oxford United. Facing a formerly favoured club of our then comparatively esteemed owners was an interesting coincidence.

Only a few months earlier, Donald and Methven shared genuine pain with over 40,000 SAFC fans, narrowly missing out on two lumps of Wembley silver and promotion to the Championship, a more acceptable footballing level for a club of our size and following.

Oxford Utd were acknowledged by many experienced observers as a challenging first fixture at that time, which became a very prescient view given how Oxford rallied later in the truncated season, earning a playoff spot through impressive spells of attacking football, and at just the right time.

They didn’t go up, but they gave themselves a chance, unlike our good selves with another timely late fade in form before Covid impacted as it did.

As I draft these thoughts, we are 5 or 6 weeks away from the start of a dreaded third season in Tier 3, and as yet we don’t know who will be our opposition come the middle of September, nor if we are home or away. Many things remain unclear, though, as ever, more clarity emerges with time.

The Wigan Athletic appeal against their 12 point deduction and subsequent relegation into League 1 was unsuccessful, and hence the EFL’s League 1 team list for 2020-21 will include the Latics rather than the formerly relegated Barnsley.

Charlton did not manage to stay in the league above us with Barnsley, after snatching promotion with that oh-so-late goal at Wembley, but Barnsley do seem to have benefitted from Wigan’s misery, as the lads did from Swindon’s misdemeanours all those years ago. We will also likely soon play against our ex-captain in Honeyman and Hull. I’m sure he will be welcomed back, with his steady 7/10 performances in tow.

Going back to the unclear, we dont know whether supporters will be able to watch live sport in venues at any time this year, nor this season. Previously strong facts - like how many season cards we will sell- are also anyone’s guess, especially with recent club admin tasks and communications being compared to the happiness seen from flatulence in a space suit.

We know not whether the season will run fully or semi uninterrupted, at a time when regional Covid lockdowns are popping up in response to hot spots of Coronavirus infection rates. We don’t know whether fellow Mackem holiday makers in Spain this August will lose their jobs for booking a holiday the government briefly supported, but then subsequently decided needed isolation on their return due to spikes of infection in the Iberian peninsula.

The unpredictable factors of being a Mackem fan are at unprecedented levels right now, as is the case for many sports enthusiasts.

All that said, I found myself asking recently, how do I feel as an SAFC fan regarding where we are right now, if we ignore these things around us that we cannot control nor influence?

Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Cause for Optimism?

If we start at the top, the question of whether or not I am happy with respect to the owners of SAFC, and them doing what they can for the club is, to say the least, a very tough one to call.

Looking at the plus side first, given the recent news that a potential sale of the club could well complete in a matter of weeks or less, many fans (like me) who felt the Methven and Donald partnership were increasingly out of their depth may now say Donald is, by sticking to his word to sell up and leave when his time was up, finally re-earning our respect.

That said, with some of the “characters” emerging as potential new owners, you may wonder whether Mr Donald is “the devil we know” better.

Compared with the situation at Wigan, possibly related alleged betting scams involving those at or close to the top of that club, would having Stewart and Co around for another 7-8 months be such a bad thing?

Recalling and reiterating the negatives of the ownership merry-go-round, we should note that for the past few seasons our summer periods have been impacted by potential sales or takeovers.

We are all well aware that Donald would probably have sold at any time had the price been right, and clearly a few have come close. We will never know how much better Parkinson or Ross may have done without running interference from potential new owners impacting upon investment in player recruitment and team strengthening last summer.

Even if the sale does go through in August, or even September, 2020, we will again have had a summer period not only hugely impacted by Covid, but also affected by significant interest and then subsequent changes of staff at the peak of our clubs hierarchy.

Only time will tell whether we can still thrive and push to go up, but I have to say I get the impression Donald is at least trying to do what I think most fans want, namely by selling up, albeit at a price many think is hard to fathom.

On reflection I cannot claim I am unhappy with the majority shareholder and ex chairman of the board right now - in the first week of August - but the smile on my face is an apprehensive one. We have no idea what or who he will sell to when under such pressure to leave, and it is a very valid point that we should all be very careful what we wish for.

Stepping down the ladder to the manager and his staff, I have to say the glass half empty side of my SAFC loyalty is initially more prominent. Parkinson has retained his job when he failed to do what he was brought in for which was, basically, to do better than Ross had. It may be the case his stay of execution has been granted due to the season ending early, and that being out of his control. The way we played in our last few games before the cessation of play (for example, losing away 2-0 to a Bristol Rovers side who hadn’t won for a comparative eternity, when the points were most crucial to gain) hardly supports reasons for him being at the helm now.

The same applies to the tactics which gave us that great run in early 2020, which many of us see as having been worked out and were being used against us by more wily coaches for some weeks before the loss in Bristol. Adding in the fact that Parkinson is presently without a recruitment lead, and he has neither a head of football operations nor an academy lead to work with, people may suggest the walls may well be crumbling around him.

Sunderland Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A Man With a Plan?

Listening to the eternal Mackem optimist hidden deep in my mind, there are glimmers and a few minor signs that our manager may be around for reasons stronger than the fact we may not easily be able to pay him off. I accept that the early announcements on retention of players like Josh Scowen may not have raised many spirits (nor even eyebrows) post the season ending prematurely. Even with that acknowledged, my feeling right now is better than a few weeks ago.

By securing the commitment of Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan to play along side Jordan Willis, Parky and the staff left around him have at least cemented a couple of key building blocks, which do trigger some hopes of defensive robustness if fitness is maintained - as seen in parts last season.

Adding to that noises about Phil wanting to get more from Will Grigg by asking him to commit by moving closer, and retaining Chris Maguire while adding an attacking player that Millwall were sad to see go from their ranks in Aiden O’Brien, I am increasingly interested to see whether or not Parkinson actually has a (dare I say decent) out of season plan? Could he really be in the process of executing that plan, by being part of the decision to let Coton and others move on, working closely with Rodwell and Donald to set our stall out ready for the restart?

Like my feelings about the overall actions of the owner, if the managers recruitment continues to be positive and we add 5-6 more players in the key positions we all know are needed (either through recruitment or promoting players like Embleton and Diamond to the first team), then are we not in an OK place?

Maybe we are moving on to using modern stats and data based techniques for hiring, in place of the “old boys club” relationships with Coton and co. If so, maybe Phil Parkinson is about to add another promotion to his CV.

Stranger things have happened, though not very often to our team.

Looking finally at the team overall, the positive thoughts I have about securing Wright, Maguire and Flanagan is a world apart from a couple of years ago, though it is all too easy to forget how deeply troubled that time was.

Donald went on record in the summer of 2018 to say that he was speaking to the squad and agents to assess who was willing to stay, and who wanted to leave, as he didn’t want anyone there who wasn’t willing to give their all. These were the sentiments that endeared Donald and Methven to many lads fans across the region at that time, supported by the famous “p*ss taking party” comments from Mr Pink Trousers himself.

In contrast, we are now in a position that some of the key players from the past two years - Maguire and a fit and healthy Wright are pivotal - are leading by example and signing up to our cause for the next term 6 weeks from the restart. If we can build on that momentum with the pace and athleticism we so desperately need (and have for some time), either from our academy or from our recruitment efforts which seem to be moving ok, then the glass-half-full Mackem in me cannot help thinking we may be in a decent place come a month plus from now.

FBL-EURO-2020-QUALIFIER-DEN-IRL
Sunderland and Ireland forward Aiden O’Brien in action in Euro 2020 qualification last year
Photo credit should read LISELOTTE SABROE/AFP via Getty Images

Nagging Doubts

If I listen, however, to the pessimist inside nagging me about our situation, the leaking talent from our academy is a major concern, and rightly so. The slow start we made to recruitment is also a cause for concern, potentially linked to the lack of staff to assist in the process.

That said, if we sign less but sign better, is that such a bad thing after some of the farcical signings last term? Why on earth was a vital loan space and a chunk of money used on Declan John? Why did Scowen not feature more if he is so pivotal this season? Are players like Conor McLaughlin ever really going to fit in and add value? Will we ever see Kimpioka, Embleton and Diamond repay the club for the years of academy investment? Will they even get a chance to shine?

There is a long way to go before the start of the new season, and who knows how long that season will take to play out once it starts. But, ignoring those things we cannot influence, it seems the red and white blood coursing through my veins really isn’t pumping under too much pressure right now. With semi-acceptable evidence of progress with from our ownership, our management and the playing squad there is room for optimism as well as scepticism.

It’s our job as fans to cross every limb, touch loads of wood, avoid ladders and hope the positive signs continue. If the new season can start with new, reinvigorated owners with a clear plan for our way forward, in a manner which doesn’t derail the progress made thus far, then that itself will be a step up from past few years.

Keep the faith fellow Mackems. Maybe this is our year. We are at an all time low, but the only way is up and, if nothing else, so far the club from top to bottom at least look to me like they are trying.