It’s been just over two weeks since our season came to an end at the Stadium of Light, and at times it’s felt like light relief.
Our schedule this season has been relentless, and although I’d have much rather have had our day in the sunshine at Wembley, we need to put a full stop on a season that’s been one of much change.
We started the season in the midst of a pandemic behind closed doors under the ownership of Stewart Donald and management of Phil Parkinson, then ended with fans returning, new ownership and new management.
The club needed to take a breath to reset, and this summer provides the chance to do that.
Preparation has ramped up with each appointment made since the new year, and Kristjaan Speakman has stated since the close of the season that this is ongoing:
I think ultimately what we’ve spent a lot of time on behind the scenes is try and identify what the identity of the club is, we’re doing more work over the summer on that piece of work.
We’ve got a little bit of a draft in term of what that should be, we have a football philosophy and a game model behind that, and while we may not have seen that as consistently as we would’ve like, what we do need to do is recruit players who are going to be a better fit to that.
Ultimately that’s going to be the bedrock of the decisions that’s been made over the last fortnight, so we need to ensure we’ve got the right players to execute the game plan.
Talk of a clear philosophy with a vision that we adhere to moving forward is reassuring, but it is also a message we’ve heard before - and as always, we look for signs as to how it’s being implemented.
On the 25th May, only three days after the second leg defeat, the club showed its first sign of intent on moving forward in the retained list for the 2021-22 season.
Chris Maguire, Conor McLaughlin, Grant Leadbitter, Josh Scowen and Max Power played big parts in achieving a fourth-place finish in League One, but were released. At times, certain players on that list were the best players on the park in games, they had their off days, but they were very good League One players and part of the reason we flirted with a top-two finish.
A club would only be happy to let these players go if they already had a plan on what direction we were taking next - and already the rumour mill is in full swing.
I hate transfer windows and rumours flying around, and from what we saw in January, the team we have in place are very good at keeping their cards close to their chest, which I see as a good thing. I don’t want to know who we’re linked with, I just want to know who we’ve signed. I remember being linked with John Frain and Martin Ling every year when I was young, but they never turned out in red and white.
The main point is that we’ll have a completely different look next season, and we’re essentially ripping apart a top-six side to start again - even with the possibility that we could begin the season without the two players who made the PFA team of the year for League One. This takes some balls.
Hopefully, the time we’ve had to prepare for the summer means we get our business done early, and after being brave with the retained list, I’m expecting some brave calls in terms of incoming players.
They’ll not be household names, and it’s doubtful that many fans will have them in mind at the moment as potential signings, but I’m expecting each to give us more of a clue how we’ll line up this season.
It’s our fourth season at this level and it’s probably about time we were brave and created something that not only gets us out of League One, but also gives us something to build on for the Championship.
We’ve only been finished with the season for two weeks and 21,000 have signed up for season cards for next season. There’s obviously something in the air, whether it’s hope or expectation, and I for one will be intrigued to see what we start building this summer.