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Heart of Midlothian v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly

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Panic off the pitch - but on it, Sunderland have quietly gone about their business in pre-season

Whilst the daily panic of social media paints the club as one in a state of chaos, a very different pre-season campaign from Sunderland has shown we’re actually in decent shape leading up to the season starting.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Sunderland’s squad, as of writing, is not completely up to scratch just yet. Lee Johnson has said as much himself.

The tittle-tattle around transfers and a perceived lack of spending has dominated the conversation amongst supporters both in person and on social media, and it’s easy to see why. After all, if nothing appears to be happening, people will naturally fill that void with hearsay and hyperbole.

In the recent past, we’ve actually had full transfer windows play out in front of us - when Stewart Donald was chairman and active on Twitter, he used the medium to allay fears from fans and to also tease potential signings.

It felt great at the time to have such unprecedented access to a club official who was so easy to extract information from, but it ultimately went against him, and he felt pressured to deliver on promises that he was struggling to keep - the big example being the signing of Will Grigg, who Donald paid over the odds for after promising fans he’d deliver a top-level replacement for the outgoing Josh Maja.

That was then, though, and right now we’ve seen things scale back to the way it perhaps was when Ellis Short was in charge. We hear very little from Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman, and whilst some of us may not admit it, we quite like the idea of being kept in the loop. Clearly, though, their communication is going to be infrequent.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

As I’ve already outlined, we’ve only just recently saw things from the complete other end of the scale, and being so open with information will occasionally lead to the club suffering as a result. The art of successful negotiation, after all, is in not allowing those on the other side of the table to know too much about the resources you have available, or the lengths you’re willing to go to in order to secure a player.

Clearly, the mentality within the club currently is that we must be patient if we are going to end up with a squad that resembles one that they’ve planned for since KLD and co. came through the door.

And very early into Speakman’s reign as Sporting Director it was made clear that the club would place a lot more focus on developing our own players through the academy system.

So, really, it should come as no surprise that a large portion of the playing minutes dished out in pre-season have been given to our best youngsters.

We better get used to it - this is the way things are going to work from here.

It may not be as glamorous as signing a known-name from the Championship, or a free agent that has been around the block a bit and has top flight experience, but it’s one of many things that the club are going to do to ensure that the point of the academy isn’t missed.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Many would agree that Lee Burge needed proper competition for his place following the end of last season, so what if Anthony Patterson is set to be the next big thing to emerge from that position? Most fans agreed that Leadbitter, Scowen and Power weren’t good enough - but what if Elliot Embleton and Dan Neil are?

The only way that you find these things out is if you take a leap of faith, and give these players a proper chance to prove that they’re up to standard.

Providing you can complement that with players that are top quality at this level, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work.

The conversation around how our squad is shaping up has distracted us from the fact that we’ve actually had a very decent pre-season so far.

Hull pose the biggest test to our credentials, and how we do against them will be very interesting, but the wins over Harrogate and Hearts were pleasing, and the fact we’ve kept so many clean sheets, played decent football and been able to successfully integrate young players into the team have been huge positives.

Harrogate v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If we can add a handful of quality players to the team before the window shuts, I’ll be more than hopeful that we can mount a challenge for promotion this season - but in intergrating more of our most talented youngsters, sticking players who are more mobile and energetic in key positions, and playing a far better brand of football, we can do so in a manner that sets us up for future success also.

No more short-term fixes, no more using sticking plasters to cover gaping wounds - just sound, logical planning that sees the club utilise all of its resources to the max.

Signing a left and right back is pretty important before the Wigan game, but we can afford to take our time in other positions. There’s still a month to go before the window shuts, and it’s how we shape up by that time that remains key.

Regardless, we’ve looked good in pre-season and that sets us up well for that first game against Wigan, and the fact that all of the off-pitch murmurings hasn’t distracted the players or the manager from the good work that they’ve done is seriously pleasing.


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