Make no mistake: so far, it has been an excellent pre-season for Sunderland AFC.
It feels like the club are working through tasks on what is undoubtedly a huge ‘to do’ list, and although they are unlikely to be even halfway through, it is pleasing that progress is clearly being made.
Whether it is sorting out new contracts for players whose services we want to retain, or resolving the ownership issues, things are being done quietly and efficiently.
In addition, we are beginning to make progress with some much-needed new signings, with Thursday’s arrival of the promising Dan Ballard from Arsenal. If reports are to be believed, we have beaten off competition from clubs much higher in the Championship pecking order to bring him to Wearside.
The impressive thing about all of this is the efficient manner in which it is being done.
It is almost as if there is a genuine element of professionalism within the club again, and that an actual plan is being followed. Whilst this is a new concept for keen observers of this football club, it should not come as a surprise, because the current progress is an extension of what started last summer.
It is however pleasing that the plan remains intact – if not evolving – and that it is being executed at a level higher.
Clearly, the aim was always to look to acquire young talent and allow them to develop at the Stadium of Light.
We saw evidence of that last year with the signings of inexperienced players such as Dennis Cirkin, Niall Huggins and Trai Hume. Three talented footballers, but each with work to do, and now it is Ballard’s turn, a player from a similar background to Cirkin, but a little bit older and a lot more experienced.
Cirkin is on a ‘development path’, as is Ballard, but we are getting players who are much further down that line. That is progress in itself, but securing the futures of our out-of-contract players is also vital.
The revolving door at the Academy of Light was a major contributing factor in the club’s decline in recent years. Constant changes led to no consistency, no clear way of playing, and resulted in a team that was lacking identity.
We have secured the futures of those who make up core of our squad, and whilst some will not play such a leading role on a weekly basis, they are all important figures and good characters, and their presence will be key as we transition from League One to the Championship.
During the Drumaville Consortium, Ellis Short and Madrox eras, we got used to scattergun approaches to recruitment, chasing players who were less than convinced about moving here. Deadline days were for popcorn and panic in equal measure, but thankfully those days should now be consigned to history.
From 2007 to 2021, Sunderland managers came and went at the whim of the owners, but under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and the current team, there is a different feeling.
Alex Neil feels like a manager who will be here for a good while, and the players who you assume he likes and trusts – such as Patrick Roberts, Bailey Wright and Lynden Gooch – have signed new contracts, when a few months ago they seemed to be on their way out.
That is evidence of Neil’s growing influence at the club, and it feels very different to how things were during Lee Johnson’s time.
One thing that should not get lost in the shuffle is the fact that we still have some excellent young talent at the club.
Elliot Embleton, Dan Neil, Jay Matete, Cirkin, Hume, Huggins and Anthony Patterson are all aged twenty two or under. Many of them will have a chance to be regular starters every week next season, and all will be involved at some stage. I do expect us to add more players to this list, and the record of this regime almost guarantees that.
Despite the positive developments, there is so much more to do, and we must not lose sight of that.
Unfortunately, the club remains a shell of what it once was, and the infrastructure to enable us to become a sustainable Premier League club is not yet in place. From the commercial and retail departments, or the resources at the Academy, it feels like we are still running at the bare minimum level.
Ultimately, none of this is surprising, given what has happened over the last few years.
I always understood the necessity of the demolition job that Madrox had to undertake four years ago, and I have been critical of them for not being either willing or able to manage the rebuild. Indeed we had to wait four long years for that rebuild to start.
It is only really now that there is tangible evidence of the progress has been made under KLD.
Winning at Wembley changed everything, but if the professionalism that seems to be returning to the club can be extended to other areas, the future may be bright again, and there is no reason why we cannot be look upwards, rather than over our shoulders.