Here we go again, a new domestic football season is upon us. Some of us are gloomy about the prospect, others pretty perky, and nobody will know for a good six months whether our pre-season pessimism or optimism was justified.
Setting our respective instincts as mere observers of proceedings aside, what should we be looking out for in the long, gruelling months ahead supporting Sunderland AFC?
Promotion by any legitimate means is and should be the ultimate aim, but the bigger story is whether the promised transformation of how Sunderland AFC operates both on and off the pitch materialises once the action gets under way.
Supporters rightly expect clear and tangible changes for the better to be on show – a club taking the tasks at hand as seriously as we take following our club.
The signs in pre-season have been – on balance – encouraging. The overall performance against Hull was excellent, and we’ve seen flashes of how this team might play throughout the build-up programme, despite a number of hiccups and setbacks. Lee Johnson needs to get the place buzzing as it did in the first half against Lincoln in May as soon as possible – obviously Saturday would be a good time to start the bandwagon rolling.
But Johnson knows as well as anyone that, if it doesn’t click immediately, there will be criticism. He needs to show both adaptability and learning in this scenario, but also resolve; this is a pressure job. He’ll need to be consistent with the players and fans about what he’s trying to achieve, mindful that it’s also a 46 game season and three points are three points, whether they’re won in August, December or April. Fans will listen to explanations, but we won’t take excuses for poor performances from either the manager or the players.
The Head Coach must show himself able to implement this new style of play effectively in competitive games, getting the best out of existing first-teamers and, with key new players in Callum Doyle, Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard to work with (and surely more to come), making good use of these acquisitions in the opening few matches will be crucial to whether he wins over the remaining doubters within the fanbase.
Choosing the right captain will be a big decision to set the tone for the team, and for me we need someone with all-round modern leadership abilities, fantastic empathy and proven drive and commitment to the cause. We need someone to represent the best of the club both on and off the pitch, someone who is going to be at the heart of the side for the next couple of seasons whatever division we’re in – and I’m pretty sure we have such a figure in our dressing room already.
Data-driven recruitment and performance analysis should produce results – but as more clubs employ similar technologies and techniques, competition for the hidden gem among footballers potentially still available on the market, and developing the performance of our existing squad to its maximum potential, are going to be both equally important and difficult tasks for the backroom team to achieve.
Alongside this, there’s the exciting prospect of seeing Kristjaan Speakman’s player development production line in action, with the progressive integration of more young players from the under-23s into the first-team setup.
All Sunderland fans love to witness home-grown and Academy-developed players making their mark at the Stadium of Light, and with Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton already looking like starters and a number of other positions still up for grabs, there’s surely going to be chances for the likes of Anthony Patterson, Ollie Younger and even Josh Hawkes to stake a claim in the side from the very start.
We do need to be using these resources in an intelligent way – the way that Parkinson said he would, but never did – as true reserves for the match-day squad. The U23s should be our strength in depth, not 30-odd-year-old journeymen. If we have three or four youngsters on the bench every week, they’ll get opportunities to prove they’re better than the established and newly recruited senior players and take their places.
Getting it right – on and off the field
Off the field, supporters will be looking forward to seeing how the fan experience at the Stadium of Light, and in the way in which Black Cats everywhere are able to follow the action, live up to the club’s promise to professionalise, modernise and innovate.
New and improved pre and post-match hospitality is promised, with better facilities and more opportunities for fans to put their mark on the stadium concourse and atmosphere in the stands. Getting Maxim’s Samson beer on the pumps is a fantastic symbolic start, and let’s hope there are more collaborations with local businesses to come from our new ownership; real investment in our region when it’s needed most.
We’ve seen and heard some criticism of the club’s handling of entry to the ground at Friday evening’s friendly, and that some fans felt unsafe with the lack of social distancing with only one stand open. Hopefully, as the region emerges from this Covid-19 nightmare in the coming months, the club will do everything possible to help fans feel secure, and use its profile to encourage vaccination, so that we can all come back to the Stadium and give the Lads the support they need as, together, we push once again to get back into the Championship.
And back in the Championship is where Sunderland Ladies will compete this season, with Mel Reay’s dynamic Ladies team back in the WSL structure after two frustrating, yet ultimately successful, seasons in tier three. With Charlotte Potts and Emma Kelly returning to the club, and youngsters like England under-19 international Neve Herron and Malta’s Maria Farrugia in the side, who knows how far they can go in the league and cup campaigns ahead in 2021/22.
In the wider world, we need to be engaged as a fanbase in the changes that are going to be proposed from the Crouch Review of football governance – this is a once in a generation opportunity to reform the way our national game operates off the pitch. Some of it will be very new, and, like the idea of us fans having a golden share to protect the cultural assets of club, quite unfamiliar to football culture in England.
We need to look at the proposals carefully but with an open mind and a willingness to embrace the changes that are needed to guarantee the future of the sport.
The Red & White Army Supporters’ Trust will be an increasingly important vehicle for fans to engage with and exert appropriate influence and indeed power within the club. The AGM is coming up, with all the executive committee positions up for election, and we will need the best and brightest amongst us to continue to step forward to ensure fans as a whole are truly at the heart of everything Sunderland AFC does.
Overall, I think we should be cautiously optimistic. It appears that the days of campaigns to get rid of terrible owners and endless speculation over club finances and potential takeovers (real and imagined) are over and we can get a little bit of what we’ve lost over the last decade or more back into our club and our city.
Let’s hope, once more, that this time it will be different...