When the days are long and the memories of the last football season are still glowing bright, it can be easy to forget just how quickly the next season will be upon us.
The usual three-month summer break has been truncated at both ends for Sunderland this year – the playoff final extended our season towards the end of May, and the break for the controversial Qatar World Cup means we recommence League action in late July.
On Saturday, it’ll be a mere seven weeks until our Championship season kicks off. Seven weeks, or 49 days, until it all kicks off again.
Now we’re back in the Championship, the focus from here very much has to be on what lies ahead.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the podcasts we’ve put out over the past couple of weeks and the articles we’ve published on the site – and there are a few more to come out this week. It’s been right to celebrate the achievement of Alex Neil and the players.
But we’ve got to draw a line right under it.
Promotion was our minimum expectation. We should never have been allowed to drop down to League One in the first place. We should never have taken four seasons to get back up.
But that’s it. Job done, eventually – and we’ve got to look forward.
Hopefully, everyone at the club is focused on what lies ahead, because in such a short space of time there’s a hell of a lot to sort out.
In the boardroom
Off the field, frustratingly, the ownership issue rumbles along. And this needs resolving as soon as possible because it naturally impacts everything else.
We’ve been in a strange holding pattern since it emerged Kyril Louis Dreyfus didn’t hold as many shares as we’d been led to believe, and Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven were happy to sell their still considerable mutual shareholding.
Of course, we know Juan Sartori was instrumental in bringing KLD to the club, and it’s fair to assume his allegiances lie with the billionaire-in-waiting, rather than Donald and Methven.
Why KLD isn’t buying out Donald and Methven is anyone’s guess, and that alone sparks concern. He and his family have the money, he’s in this deep, why not go the whole way?
Reports broke this week that Donald and Methven had accepted an offer for their shares. Initially, the buyer was rumoured to be a group led by KLD’s stepfather, or a very wealthy Sunderland supporter, John Reece. Last night, worrying stories broke about a less-than-ideal offer from ‘The Fans Together’ – a crypto-led venture led by people with concerning business backgrounds.
We know from experience that a change in ownership drags on and on – you only need to look at the length of time it took for the EFL to approve KLD’s share purchase – and the fact that we have this rumbling on in the background is far from ideal.
Thankfully it’s not rumoured to be a full takeover, so there should be an element of stability with KLD and Sartori staying put, and you’d hope the transfer plans put in place aren’t contingent on Donald and Methven selling up.
And while a quick resolution would be good in an ideal world, whatever the next step is, it needs to be right for Sunderland AFC in the long term. And personally, I don’t believe ‘The Fans Together’ is that.
Either way, an unsettled boardroom is the last thing we need. Hopefully, KLD steps up to the plate, and quickly.
Off the field
As well as the ownership issues, there are plenty of off-the-field issues to sort out, too. Promotion may temporarily mask talk of off-field failings, but let’s face it – in reality, the club’s been found lacking here.
Chief Operating Officer Steve Davison has been running the show for the past 18 months, and we’re led to believe he’s guided by data.
Well, maybe he needs a rethink here.
The club shop’s been closed on and off since Covid hit, and we’ve missed out on sales of shirts and all manner of memorabilia. Well, we would have done if there’d been any shirts to buy!
I experienced it myself, a couple of weeks ago, the Monday after we’d been promoted. I had a walk around the stadium and would have gone in and probably spent a decent amount that I couldn’t really afford to spend, but it was shut. No sign of life at all.
Around Sunderland, I barely saw a shirt – this is less than 48 hours after we won at Wembley. Less than 48 hours after promotion was achieved.
It’s a sad state of affairs – and has been repeatedly noted here – that it’s easier to buy a Newcastle shirt in Sunderland than a Sunderland shirt.
The responsibility for this – and many other issues, including the inability to pay on the turnstile for casual match goers – ultimately lies at Mr Davison’s door.
Another thing that we’ve really got to focus on as a club right now is our marketing and communications. We had a mountain of momentum post-Wembley, and they thankfully put season cards back on sale, but there’s been very little activity since. It’s fair to point out it is just over a fortnight since Wembley, people will be on holiday, etc etc, but the fact remains that that shouldn’t matter.
We were on a crest of a wave – we’re still enjoying the ride as it approaches the surf – and we really should take advantage of it.
When you look around at what other clubs are doing, and the serious efforts that are going into marketing the club and getting people who might be wavering to sign up for a season card, it just underlines the work to be done in this area of the club.
They got it massively right with the promotion up to and at the Sheff Wed semi, and it worked superbly. More of the same, please.
On the field
As supporters we’re quite rightly focused in the main on the field, however – the reality is that if the team is doing well then the other stuff I’ve outlined here isn’t really a concern.
But as soon as things don’t go well on the field, these issues are magnified – often to a disproportionate effect, as we’ve seen over recent years.
Should we be concerned about Alex Neil’s contract? Only if he is. And he seemed pretty content with the situation immediately after the final. I’m sure we’d all get an additional level of comfort if it was announced he’d just signed a new four-year deal, but in reality, would it change much?
The fact is that managers leave – hopefully, Alex Neil will be here for a while, but if he lasts beyond the end of next season he’ll be our longest-serving manager since Gus Poyet, so history’s against him. A one-year rolling deal is probably the most sensible approach for all concerned.
Of more immediate interest is transfers in – and holding onto the players we need to keep at the Stadium of Light.
A new contract for Ross Stewart would be most welcome, as would the announcement of Patrick Roberts extending his stay. The two of them are easily Championship-level players and will be vital for us next season.
We’ve got a stable recruitment team in place behind the scenes now, and they have done well for us so far – bar some questionable decisions in January that you suspect weren’t all of their own.
If you cast your mind back to last summer, however, there was a hell of a lot of frustration about incomings – Lee Johnson himself was visibly annoyed with a lack of progress as the pre-season friendlies ticked down and he was relying on under 23s to make up the numbers.
The fact we went into the opening day of the season with no full-backs illustrated our focus on the long-term, and making sure we get the right players in rather than rushing to fill gaps, however, at League One level most were always confident we’d do reasonably well with the squad we started the season with.
Is the same true this time around? To be honest, I don’t know. If we keep the spine of the team, and the out of contract players sign before pre-season training starts, we’re in a far better place than we were last season.
We’ve got a couple of full-backs, at least. But our end-of-season form can’t mask the need for some serious additions.
The recruitment team has earned our trust thought – albeit it Kristjaan Speakman would have been under a hell of a lot of scrutiny had we not earned promotion – and if we see a similar approach to what we saw last season – with an increase in the calibre of player we can attract – then I’ll be happy.
This is still a long-term build, and I’m pleased we seem to have established some solid foundations to develop on.
In a fortnight’s time, the fixtures will be released, and then the challenge that lies ahead becomes very, very real. You’d imagine the players will be returning to training shortly after than, and preseason fixtures will begin in earnest.
So, it’s all eyes on the future from here – the only purpose in looking back now is to learn the lessons from what went wrong, and make sure we’re never, ever in that position again.