As Sunderland gear up for what will be a demanding return to the Championship, how will our group of talented young players adapt to second-tier football, and how much will Alex Neil rely on them?
Yes, a solid, reliable backup goalkeeper is undoubtedly required (John Ruddy would be the ideal candidate, and Leicester City’s Daniel Iversen has also been linked with a move to Wearside) and yes, Patterson is not the ‘finished article’ quite yet, but after his startlingly good run of form towards the end of last season, the homegrown goalkeeper could certainly enter 2022/2023 as our number one choice between the sticks.
The fundamentals of Patterson’s game- command of his area, aerial dominance, reflexes and shot-stopping ability- are all in place, and playing regularly against a higher calibre of opposition ought to help him progress even further. If a solid number two is signed, it also offers scope to rotate and rest him when needed, which will also be key.
The calmness he demonstrated in the playoff final against Wycombe was indicative of a maturity beyond his tender years, and it would be fabulous to see Alex Neil continue to put 100% faith in him for the season to come.
When Hume arrived from Linfield FC on a four-and-a-half-year contract in January, there was quite a lot of anticipation surrounding his signing. He came with a burgeoning reputation and made a reasonably positive impression thereafter, with some enterprising performances in red and white.
Since then, he has fallen out of the first-team picture (despite being given his first international call-up in March) and as such, he remains something of an unknown quantity.
This summer represents an excellent chance for Hume to stake a claim and to show Neil that he can become a first-team regular.
One of Sunderland’s (sadly) forgotten men, Huggins has not been seen in and around the squad for what feels like an age, after injury curtailed what had been a very promising start to his time on Wearside.
He impressed at full-back during the early weeks of the season, and in what had previously represented something of a problem position, it seemed as though we had found ourselves a good, reliable option in that area of the pitch.
Like Hume, Huggins ought to be viewing summer training as a chance to reignite his Sunderland career, and defensive depth will be crucial, so he is likely to stand a good chance of getting a run of games.
2021/2022 was a curious season for the ex-Tottenham academy graduate.
Bookended by some excellent form at the beginning and at the end, Cirkin endured a major dip in confidence during the winter, as the team’s form suffered and he began to feel the consequences of being overplayed.
When Neil arrived, however, Cirkin began to turn things around, and after some encouraging performances during the final weeks, it was wonderful to see him conclude a turbulent campaign with a Wembley victory.
He seems to be very much a favourite of Neil’s, and if we can maintain the central defensive stability that was the bedrock of promotion, Cirkin ought to be able to take to the second tier with confidence, and at just twenty, he has ample room for improvement.
The one January signing over which a question mark arguably still hangs, Matete has rarely been given an extended run in the team since his move from Fleetwood, and as such, has had to try and impress through cameo roles under Neil, during which he has shown potential, but also weakness.
In theory, Matete could be the ball-winning, game-breaking presence that is worth its weight in gold in the Championship, but he certainly needs to improve his decision-making, as countless rash challenges towards the end of the season demonstrated.
It feels as though the experience of Corry Evans will be placed at the heart of our midfield for 2022/2023, and with other players to compete with, Matete might face a battle to establish himself, but there is definitely a talented player there.
Much like Cirkin, Neil’s season was a story of major highs and significant lows, as he went from automatic selection under Lee Johnson to fringe player (not entirely unsurprisingly, perhaps) under his successor. Nevertheless, his overall contribution was impressive, and he will be relishing the opportunity to impress when the squad reconvenes after their break.
I would like to think that Neil will be given ample opportunities to contribute in the Championship. His attributes, on the face of it, seem very well-suited to the division, and I do think he has the mentality to step up and make an impression at a higher level.
Patience might be key for the England U20 player in the early months of next season, but as a genuine homegrown talent, it would be uplifting to see him make a notable contribution.
Can he make the leap from League Two to the Championship, or is another loan spell on the cards for a player who often looked promising in red and white, but also exhibited a rawness to his game that has hopefully been polished up during his time at Harrogate?
Attacking options are worth their weight in gold at this level, and Diamond certainly offers us the kind of pace and trickery that could be a real point of difference.
The question is whether he has honed his game to a significant enough level, and whether he can force his way into Alex Neil’s thinking, given that we have the likes of Leon Dajaku and Patrick Roberts (new deal permitting) vying for attacking berths?
This could be a big summer for Diamond, and if he is given chances during pre-season, he needs to take them.
It feels inevitable that the young German winger, who only joined Sunderland permanently after a clause in his loan deal was invoked, will be loaned out in order to gain some much-needed game time. No manager should ever have to make use of a player he doesn’t feel he needs, and Dajaku seems to fall into that category.
After arriving last summer, he chipped in with some useful goals and also showed some genuine talent, but he often looked callow, nervous, and not fully prepared for the rigours of English football.
Consequently, he barely featured at all under Alex Neil, and barring him showing up to pre-season training as a completely transformed player, it would be no surprise to see him spent part of, if not all, of 2022/2023 elsewhere.