The announcement last week of Sunderland’s pre-season arrangements had fans checking their bank balances and leave entitlements to see if they can stretch to a visit to Portugal, but whilst a trip to the continent sounds appealing for the supporters, the players and staff will be expected to knuckle down and get on with some serious work.
It is no longer the case that footballers return from their own summer breaks carrying a few extra clem and needing to be whipped back into shape. Players are expected to look after themselves a bit more now, and so the recent footage on social media of Anthony Patterson, Dan Neil and Jack Diamond being put through their paces by a personal trainer was hugely encouraging.
Seeing young lads setting themselves up now so that they can kick on once back on the training ground points towards a pleasing shift in mentality in the game. It also means that when the squad links back up, less time will be spent on bleep tests and fat checks and used instead to work on individual skills and team tactics. Throw in a bit of bonding too and you have a decent platform from which to tackle the season.
The pre-season friendlies will provide the most obvious indications as to whether things are on track. Although not the be-all and end-all, a couple of positive results along the way can help create a bit of a feel-good factor and that is why selecting the right level of competition can be key.
Clubs seem reticent to schedule many fixtures against sides from the same division anyway, but a mixture of games that allow you to act out new ideas and test yourself against higher opposition makes sense.
On the face of it, the matches lined up by Sunderland so far should allow for those requirements. Portugal seems to tick the right boxes as a training destination too – it is far enough away to allow the players to focus on the matter in hand but is close enough that the travelling will not be too much of an issue.
Spending long hours going to far-flung destinations can be unnecessarily gruelling, and there are many supporters that suspect such tours are more about marketing opportunities than they are preparing the players adequately.
Not everybody would agree I know, but from a personal point of view, I feel a little uneasy about the carbon footprint being created by the sport. The environmental concerns make mainland European more palatable, but keeping things closer to home has other altruistic benefits too – inviting local clubs to the Academy of Light helps recognise the part they play in the pyramid, and short excursions around the north of England are much more accessible for families.
Sunderland will take good numbers to Bradford, Accrington and Hartlepool, with those travelling no doubt spending money there and giving the local economy a bit of a boost.
Dundee United is an intriguing option too – Scotland is somewhere a bit different after all, and it is always a nice change for Lads fans to be going further north for once. An encouraging 2-0 win over Heart of Midlothian at the beginning of 2021-22 helped Sunderland get off to a very good start and getting tickets for this should be easy enough as well, so there is a lot going for it.
For fans, the coming weeks will provide some stress-free football but for players, they will contribute greatly to the real stuff at the end of July. After the euphoria of Wembley, pre-season might feel like a bit of a comedown for some but that is the ebb and flow nature of the game, however, and if we want to see any sort of success in the campaign ahead the graft needs to start up again now.