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Editorial: This doesn’t feel like we’re winging it

The start to this season isn’t all that different to our last three attempts - but this is the first time it’s felt like we have a plan.

Photo by Charlotte Tattersall - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

You know what? - for once, I’m glad we’ve had this international break.

I hate international breaks once the season is underway. I used to like them as a kid in the late 80s/early 90s, but years of crap nonsense friendlies - quite often where Sven-Goran Eriksson used his whole squad in a single 90 minutes, or watching us struggle to break down San Marino for an hour before opening the floodgates - wore me down at some point.

And don’t get me wrong, this new found acceptance of an international break isn’t anything to do with the excitement of watching England fans prepare maiden flights for some of the best paper aeroplanes ever produced at our national stadium, whilst Southgate’s young pups collect three World Cup qualifying points over the mighty Andorra on the pitch.

No, this has everything to do with a warm fuzzy around our club at the moment. It’s been a while, you see.

England v Poland
Loved an international break back in the day...
Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images.

Quite often when a break like this has came along over the past three years, it has produced feelings of wanting another fixture to come around quickly to make ground on the sides above us, or put right what went wrong in the previous fixture, or get on with it after a victory in the wishful thinking it might be the beginning of some sort of amazing winning streak.

For one reason or another, there was always frustration that we didn’t have the opportunity to have another crack at it.

As things stand right now, I’m comfortable with knowing we’re prepared for the next fixture and I’m enjoying the anticipation of seeing us in action, so I don’t want to wish away the build-up - things feel good.

And looking back, our start to the season isn’t anything out of the ordinary during our stay in League One.

In our first season under Jack Ross we were a point better off after five games, and in his second season only a point worse off, which was also the case for Phil Parkinson last season - but it feels more like we’ve got a plan this year than in any of our previous three attempts at getting back to the Championship.

Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
We were only one point worse off last season after five games under Phil Parkinson, but not many were convinced it would last
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

It’s also an odd feeling, because at the moment I think it’s safe to say that it is a wave of cautious optimism based on performance as opposed to high expectation aided by rousing statements of piss-taking parties being over, or magic carpet rides.

Credit where credit is due, Kyril-Louis Dreyfus and the team he put in place was forced to limp along last season after the mid-pandemic takeover was confirmed at the beginning of the year. The January transfer window was at a time when the deal looked inevitable but it wasn’t yet official, so the latter half of last season felt like we were just getting by.

They clearly used this time to prepare, and to some extent I wonder how much promotion bothered them last season as they were preparing for the face lift our squad required in the summer.

The season ended without much noise from the club - no statements of intent came in the form of press conferences or interviews, but they did come in their actions. When the retained list was announced, the scale of what they had planned was clear.

We’d finished 5th last season, so not a million miles off the pace, but in releasing the likes of Josh Scowen, Max Power, Grant Leadbitter, Conor McLaughlin, Chris Maguire and George Dobson, they were shouting it from the rooftops that they wanted to do things differently.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg
He might have captained the club last season, but there was no sentiment spared when Max Power was released in the summer
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

It was brave and necessary, but it meant that they’d stripped it back so much that they had invited the pressure on themselves in having to get the business done to complete the job. In the poker game that is the transfer window, they had to hold their nerve as many clubs thought they held better hands by completing their business early in the window.

Ahead of the Wigan Athletic game to kick-off the new season, only Alex Pritchard, Corry Evans and Callum Doyle were additions to the squad, and an element of faith needed to be applied.

The 17-year-old from Pep’s academy provided some faith in pre-season, especially as Pritchard was struggling after contracting COVID-19 and Corry Evans, although being a solid player with Championship pedigree who I’m convinced will play a big part this season, was a 30-year-old on a free transfer - which wasn’t the type of signing to raise anticipation for the season ahead.

Again, no word from the club - and that isn’t a criticism, they were getting on with the job.

Which they proved in what was just over three weeks following our win over Max and Charlie on 7th August, with six new signings. All young, with the oldest being Nathan Broadhead at 23-years-old and with focus on athleticism and pace - a far cry from signing the likes of Glenn Loovens and Danny Graham.

A lot of credit has been sent the way of Kristjaan Speakman and his recruitment team, and rightly so, but we should also send some in the direction of Lee Johnson.

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference
They’ve been busy...
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Questions were asked of the manager following the defeat to Lincoln City in the play-offs - questions over style of play and patchy form were the main talking points, but he’s answered those in the best way possible so far this season: by getting results.

This was achieved against the backdrop of negotiating pre-season and the first handful of fixtures with a squad that was still being built and if truth be told, major gaps where we still required strengthening. But Johnson adjusted accordingly, and with players removed from their natural positions to plug gaps, he still managed to pick up the points.

Part of me doesn’t want to look further than the Accrington Stanley fixture, but looking at September, we have a great opportunity to be nine games into the season in pole position in League One, and it’s odd to look ahead thinking like that; it’s been a while.

Yes, we’ve achieved nothing so far, and yes, we’ve been in similar positions over the previous three seasons in League One, but this time it doesn’t have the sense of ‘winging it’.

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
So far, so good...
Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

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