As we continue to bask in the relief and excitement of sealing a return to the Championship, one of the topics currently gaining traction is the state of Sunderland’s squad, in which positions reinforcements are needed, and the kind of players we should be targeting during the offseason.
For as long as social media has been prevalent, ‘Fantasy Transfer Shopping’ has been a very popular game among our fans. Indeed, a glance at the socials over the past week has thrown up a litany of free agent signings and contracted players that people believe we should be attempting to lure to Wearside.
Some of the names being bandied around are familiar- Cole Stockton, Scott Twine, Sammie Szmodics, and some, such as Danny Drinkwater, Jobe Bellingham and John Swift, would fall into the ‘ambitious and exciting’ bracket.
In order to try and gauge exactly how Sunderland will approach their summer transfer business, there are a number of factors to consider, perhaps the most pertinent of which is the man in charge.
Alex Neil strikes me as the kind of manager who places a high premium on values such as loyalty, effort, and honesty.
During his time at the club, it is obvious that the players have bought into his no-nonsense ethos, and he in turn has helped to overhaul their collective mindset, to superb effect.
To that end, I wouldn’t be surprised if he stands by many of his go-to players and offers them the chance to led Sunderland into the new season as just reward for their efforts during 2021/2022.
If we surmise that the current ‘spine’ of Sunderland’s squad is comprised of Anthony Patterson, Bailey Wright, Danny Batth, Corry Evans, Alex Pritchard and Ross Stewart, that is by no means a weak nucleus of players and could form the basis of a very solid team for next season.
Throw the workmanlike qualities and versatility of Lynden Gooch and Luke O’Nien into the mix, as well as the promise of Dan Neil, Dennis Cirkin, and the retained Leon Dajaku, and we have a crop of undeniably talented players, with plenty of room for growth.
This is not to say, however, that reinforcements are not needed.
A quality number two goalkeeper is a must, as are two speedy, prolific strikers to complement Stewart. Muscle and guile in midfield, and greater defensive depth are also required, but judging by what Kristjaan Speakman said last week, little time will be wasted in identifying and recruiting players who tick these boxes.
The big question, of course, is can the players mentioned above raise their game to the next level?
As we saw during Sunderland’s playoff run, one of Neil’s major assets is his ability to coax an extra ten or twenty percent out of his players, to push them that little bit further and extract more from them than maybe even they thought possible.
Perhaps he feels that he can do it in the Championship, too, and maybe any new signings won’t be of the ‘marquee’ variety, but will be solid professionals with the kind of attitude that Neil is looking for. After all, he has built an incredible team spirit in recent months, and maintaining that will be vital.
Also key to our transfer business will be Neil’s working relationship with Speakman.
If he demands a certain level of autonomy (which wouldn’t be unreasonable, given what he has achieved up to now) would there be a willingness to compromise on behalf of the club hierarchy?
Neil holds a very strong hand in this regard, having delivered promotion and secured the unanimous support of the fanbase. In addition, there seems to be a growing consensus that if backed over the coming seasons, he could eventually lead the club back to the Premier League.
It is evident that there is a new framework in place at the club, one that has seen us move on from the scattergun approach that defined our early years in League One, to a model that is much more logical, albeit not quite perfect.
Despite some misses during the two recent transfer windows, there have been some big successes, such as Patrick Roberts. There is some obvious rhyme and reason to our transfer dealings nowadays, and hopefully it will continue this summer.
I firmly believe that ambition and any long-term plans must be balanced with realism as we prepare for our return to the Championship.
Last summer saw the squad undergo a substantial rebuild, but I would be very surprised if we follow a similar template this time around.
Regarding the profile of player we are targeting, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a smattering of young prospects, complimented by three or four experienced players, to maintain the balance we currently have.
The foundations are there, but they must be solidified and built on. There is a wonderful opportunity to continue to build momentum over the coming years, and a successful first transfer window is the next step on the journey.