Here we are again in the early summer. It’s stinking hot outside after a very wet May, Sunderland have confirmed a raft of players will be released at the end of June, and the transfer window is about to open for our club to have another go at getting out of this god awful league.
For me personally, our (repeated) playoff failure is, thankfully, starting to be a distant memory, and the eternal optimism is starting to regain ownership of emotions flowing in the bloodstream.
As tends to happen most years, time is slowly banishing the essence of doubt and disappointment for at least another 10 months or so. But this is a new year of new beginnings for SAFC, so what will satisfy our hope and optimism across these summer months, as we build up to the new season 2021-22?
And how can our new team of club officials make a major difference?
One thing I do already realistically hope for from the new team is a chunk more of a fresh start than we have had for some years.
I want and expect to see paradigm shifts in how the club operates on and off the pitch, in terms of the first team, the younger squads in the academy, and also the ladies' side.
We wanted a new owner, and we finally got that in Kyril Louis-Dreyfus in mid-February of this year, a few months after the manager he allegedly selected was appointed to replace Phil Parkinson.
We then saw him bring in a Sporting Director in Kristjaan Speakman, an improved data and analytics approach with skilled staff led by James Young, and a new Head of Recruitment in Stuart Harvey.
So what do they need to do differently from previous years?
For one, we need Speakman and Johnson to reiterate and re-emphasise their strategy, tactics and requirements to the whole “off the field” team, but most importantly to the head of recruitment and the data and analysis leads. It is impossible for anyone to do their job well when they have poor direction on what is needed to improve the club’s situation.
Based on those clear requirements, this summer's recruitment can be a cut above recent seasons (which to be fair isn’t a high bar to overcome), through exceptional use of data and analytics, and pristine recruitment.
I say this as I really feel that this is the time for Speakman, Johnson, and co to shine.
Johnson had the excuse in the last January window that the salary cap prevented him from acting significantly, which was fair to an extent, but that illegal cap is gone now. We need Harvey to take the recommendations from Young and his gadgets, and to flush out and secure the hidden gems we need, in all areas (though with the mass clear out in midfield, you have to assume we start there).
We then need Harvey and Johnson to sign these players up into attractive but realistic, performance-based contracts. We are the largest club in this league, nobody denies that.
We should be the optimal place for ambitious players to go to.
Let’s see that happen rather than them being attracted to other ambitious clubs more aligned in size and stature to this league than we are.
The other big change we need to see is the pace and drive of this process being executed. Last season, every player we were allegedly linked with in the transfer windows appeared to be gobbled up by other teams, often before the virtual ink on the webpages linking them to the SOL was even dry.
Blackpool, in particular, signed numerous players cited as being of interest to us - to the point where I felt they were letting us do all their scouting for them! They got promoted through the playoffs because they did things better than we did, including finding a way to get more out of both Robson and Embleton, and so they have reaped the rewards.
With all these new roles in our leadership team since March, there are no more excuses for us not to do the same or better than Posh, Hull and Blackpool, and by starting the process soon and getting strong signings from early on, we can rebuild the team spirit which will have been impacted by the exodus and the playoff disappointment.
What else do we expect as the embers of hope warm, glow and start to smoke against the damp twigs around them? Personally, I would really like the club to take a look at the fan experience over the past 18 months, and see what can be done to hugely improve that for the seasons to come. I was pleased to see the club survey about this lately, and 12,000 fans sent in their views to support the club in delivering improvements.
The fact is, over the past season, I have seen more “live” SAFC football than since I was a young man in my early twenties, and I am not sure I want that to go away. None of us want this pandemic to continue, and we all know some poor soul who has lost someone to it, as many of us have too.
Even at these dire times in the third division, we cannot drag ourselves away from the screen when the red and white shirts jog out to Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights”.
We just can't get enough of Sunderland, even when the experience is in the bargain basement of the pyramid and not particularly attractive to the eye. It is who we are, so we need to experience it and have it as part of our lives. Because of all that, I would love the club to review its streaming offering and seriously consider how local and remote fans like me can watch more live games, as we all have had to while the stadiums were closed off.
If the club can get creative about making the experience like no other in this league, or the one above, the hordes will return both in person and via online means (as they already seem to be with well over 20,000 season cards already sold). If momentum gets going early through the solid preparations mentioned above, we can and will fill our home stadium again (Covid allowing), and we can really kick on.
The stage is set, the main actors are in place, and the show starts now with the pre-season recruitment and build-up. Don’t let us down lads. Your time to shine is here. Shine brightly.