So, we’re about to pass another milestone en-route to the new campaign. It might feel like barely five minutes have passed since another playoff run ended in defeat, but as the European Championship moves into its crucial stages, closer to home, attention is now switching towards an equally crucial period in our recent history.
This week, Sunderland begin their pre-season training programme, and in terms of our preparedness for the 2021/2022 campaign, it is fair to say that the picture is mixed. As of right now, no new signings have arrived, and the futures of the out-of-contract quartet of McGeady, Wyke, O’Nien, and Hume are yet to be resolved, with no confirmation that they intend to stay or depart for pastures new.
On Twitter, there has been a steady and not unexpected hum of requests imploring the club to ‘SIGN SOME PLAYERS’, and eyes have regularly been fixed on our fellow League One teams as they have secured new signings early in the window. It would be easy to say that we’ve been caught flat-footed by our rivals, but before the ‘same old Sunderland’ mantra starts trending, I think a broader perspective is needed.
In the immediate aftermath of the Lincoln defeat, I felt it was of utmost importance that the club lost no time in building towards the new season.
The swift release of the retained and released list suggested that steps were already being taken, but since then, with the exceptions of new contracts being announced for the likes of Anthony Patterson and Ellis Taylor, a silence seems to have descended, and the only noises seem to be in the form of questions and unsubstantiated speculation: will Charlie Wyke move to Celtic? Is Dion Sanderson a viable possibility on a permanent deal? Is there a Thomas Sorensen-esque goalkeeper out there who can bring some much-needed presence and stability between the sticks?
Clearly Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Kristjaan Speakman, and those around them are implementing a plan, one about which they have spoken openly and articulately, but fan patience is not in plentiful supply. Indeed, the relative lack of enthusiasm on the back of the fixtures being released seemed to sum it up: actions, and not just words, are what people want to see.
On Saturday, Lee Johnson spoke optimistically about how things were progressing, and of his belief that the team can use the hurt of last season as fuel to drive them towards promotion this time around. Not new sentiments, by any stretch of the imagination, but he did appear confident that, come August, we will be ready to attack the league head-on.
Again, the right tone was struck, but we’ve been here before with Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson, so perhaps come scepticism is justified. Johnson will be under huge pressure when we kick off the new season, and rightly or wrongly, any lingering fears that he isn’t the right man will only be eased by a very strong start to the season.
My main concern right now is whether we can successfully rebuild the squad into one that can deliver automatic promotion in what is now a short timeframe. Following the playoff defeat, there was a consensus that at least seven or eight new players were needed in order to provide both quality and strength in depth. To that end, Lee Johnson’s use of the word ‘trickle’, regarding transfers, was curious.
Does he not believe that a major rebuild is needed? Does he intend to promote largely from within, and only augment the team with a smattering of signings from elsewhere? King’s ransoms are seldom paid for players at this level, but striking a balance between exciting prospects and proven quality can’t be done on a shoestring, either.
A fourth season at this level, generally considered unthinkable once upon a time, is now a reality, and it goes without saying that upgrades across the park are required.
Even though we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, you have to assume that targets are being identified and bids placed, and perhaps doing it in a slightly more low-key fashion (remember Stewart Donald’s ill-advised ‘biggest budget in the league’ proclamation?) is no bad thing.
Ultimately, this isn’t about ‘falling in love’ with an owner or showing blind faith. It is about trying to afford him time to go about his business, and acknowledging that, regardless of the newly-restored financial security at the club, money can’t be wasted. After all, we’ve been there before with Will Grigg, and that was a very harsh lesson.
Time is passing by, and things do need to start moving, but I still don’t believe there is any cause to panic. Let’s see how the next few weeks pan out, and see how the squad looks by mid-July. By then, we ought to have a much clearer picture of exactly how we are shaping up.