This week has been a crucial one for Sunderland AFC.
On Wednesday, the news broke that Charlie Methven had sold his remaining shares. leaving Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Juan Sartori with 81% of the club- a highly positive development and one that has been long overdue. That announcement was augmented later that day, when it was confirmed that Lynden Gooch had signed a new contract, extending his stay at the club for which he has played since childhood.
With positivity replacing pessimism, on Thursday morning it was time to discover how our forty-six league fixtures had been arranged, to highlight the away trips that we’re all looking forward to, and to really set the timer running on the countdown to the new season.
The visit of Coventry on the opening weekend will be one of the most eagerly-anticipated games of recent times.
Sky Sports will televise the match live on the Sunday lunchtime, and it seems certain that a crowd of close to, or maybe even greater than 40,000 will give the players a rousing reception as we kick off the season. It feels like the kind of game that will see the Stadium of Light at its most raucous and spine-chilling best, and a brilliant chance to kick things off with a victory.
Post-Coventry, we dive into an August schedule that will pit us against Bristol City, Sheffield United, and Stoke away from home, and will also see us welcome Dean Smith’s Norwich - surely one of the promotion favourites - as well as Michael Beale’s Queens Park Rangers to Wearside. We will also cross swords with our old League One rivals Rotherham, and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top in that game.
The first edition of the ‘derby that isn’t a derby, except when it is a derby’, against Middlesbrough, takes place at the Riverside on the first weekend of September. In the not-too-distant past, Chris Wilder was often touted as a potential Sunderland manager, and the smart money seems to suggest that he’ll be going all-in to build a promotion-capable Boro team this summer.
Moving forward to December, we will welcome our former manager Steve Bruce back to the Stadium of Light (albeit certainly not with a volley of cabbages) when he brings West Bromwich Albion to the North East on the 10th, and a tasty-looking clash with Blackburn Rovers is on the menu for Boxing Day.
This period will be crucial, as it always is, and our squad depth is likely to be tested. It was during this time last year that our younger players began to feel the effects of being overplayed, and it is imperative that a repeat scenario is avoided this time.
2023 begins with what will undoubtedly be a suitable raucous away day against Blackpool, and later in January, Middlesbrough will make the trip up the A19 for the reverse fixture.
Could that be the game that sees us strengthen our top-half or playoff credentials? How will we utilise the January window in order to bolster the squad for the final months of the campaign?
There is no doubt that April seems to be the toughest month- at first glance, at least.
Vincent Kompany’s Burnley team ought to pose a stiff test, and will Sunderland face a Cardiff team boosted by the signing of Gareth Bale, when we visit the Welsh capital on April 10th? One thing I think can all agree on is that it would be a blessed relief to enter this period with no lingering fears of relegation, and with everyone looking up, as opposed to glancing nervously over our shoulders.
We conclude the schedule with two tricky-looking games against West Brom and Watford, before bringing down the curtain with a game against Preston.
It will undoubtedly be a tough season, and we will endure periods of poor form and frustrating results, but after four years in the wasteland of League One, it is a great relief to have such an exciting prospect to look forward to, as opposed to trying to galvanise ourselves for another trudge through the third tier.
One firm conclusion you can draw from yesterday is the fact that Alex Neil will fear nobody, and he will relish the chance to lead us into battle against every team we play. It is obvious that he is a highly motivated, driven boss, who, if backed, could certainly lead Sunderland back to the top flight.
Whether you believe 2022/2023 should be a season of consolidation and stability, or whether we should aim high and waste no time in mounting a promotion bid, let’s savour every game, and embrace the challenge after four painful years in the third tier.
We’ve finally arrived at the next waypoint on our journey- and that in itself is a very exciting prospect.