The World Cup is well underway and with that, the break in Championship football is approaching two weeks. It already feels like a lifetime since the Lads came back from Birmingham City with all three points, but the squad are hard work on foreign shores.
Sunderland are currently taking part in a warm weather training camp in the United Arab Emirates, a trip which will be rounded off with a friendly against Saudi Arabian side Al-Shabab FC.
Sunderland are known for having a great following wherever we go, and even in a friendly match thousands of miles away there will be a good following of those in red and white.
This will be made up in the majority by members of Sunderland’s UAE branch.
I caught up with Stuart White from the branch to find out about them, how they are buzzing to be able to watch the lads in the flesh, and what they can expect from the middle east conditions.
RR: For those who don’t already know, tell us a little bit more about the branch...
SW: The present branch has been going for around 12 years. Trevor Smith got things going and after he moved to Oman for a new job, he handed it on to me and I’ve been running it ever since.
There are quite a few Red and Whites here in the United Arab Emirates, mostly based in Dubai but others in Abu Dhabi and the other five Emirates. Most of us are from the North East but we have Lads and Lasses from Wales, London, New Zealand and Canada who support the Lads and are living and working over here. Lots of us are involved in Engineering, Education, Aviation or Project Management employed either by the Government or International firms.
We keep in touch through our Branch Facebook page which has over 400 members. Lots of people have joined the branch after visiting Dubai on holiday, or have been over here for short stays. We have had some really nice people join us in the pub to watch the match - it’s great to meet them and be able to offer them a little bit of home while out here in the sunshine.
We get together for most games, watching in a pub on the Palm Jumeirah. We had a great turnout of over 100 for the Playoff Final, and it ended up as a bit of a raucous night by all accounts. About 12 of us travelled over for the match and sadly missed that party, but did our best to make up for it in London.
So Sunderland are on your doorstep, what’s it like to have the team so close?
SW: It’s very exciting to have the Lads here again. While it's nice to get together to watch on the TV, getting to see the Lads on a local pitch is a whole lot better.
They will be getting plenty of support from us on the day.
Incidentally, we are looking after four lads who are flying over for the game and taking them out afterwards for the England game.
We did meet the squad previously when Sam Allardyce brought them over a few years ago. The players and staff were brilliant with the supporters, they really looked after the younger ones especially.
Are you hoping to meet any of the players/ staff?
SW: We have been invited to a training session to meet the players and again to go up to the training centre to watch the match on Friday. A big thank you to Chris Waters who has, as usual, been fantastic in helping us arrange this.
A few of the lads here have already bumped into Patrick Roberts and Alex Pritchard playing golf at the weekend, some nice photos are up on our Facebook page.
What can the lads expect from their trip to UAE?
SW: The weather here is starting to cool down from the ridiculous temperatures of the summer. The forecast this week is low 30s during the day and low 20s at night, so very pleasant by the pool but still a bit warm to be out on a football pitch.
The place is buzzing at the minute with lots staying here and ‘commuting’ to the World Cup in Doha, packed out fan zones to watch the games, as well as the F1 Grand Prix last weekend, a big golf tournament and the usual Dubai stuff.
What have you made of our start to life back in the championship?
SW: I think we have done okay considering the amount of injuries we have suffered with. Losing both strikers and an entire back four hasn’t helped us at all. If everyone had been fit, I feel we could have had at least another 6 to 8 points in addition to what we have, if not more.
The challenge now is to keep the squad together as there have been some eye-catching performances, which must be attracting attention from scouts in the Premier League and elsewhere in the Championship. In particular, Ross Stewart, Jack Clarke, Alex Pritchard, Danny Batth and Anthony Patterson to name but five.
Our new owner seems to be a man with a plan, unlike the past 15 years, so I am hopeful for the future.