It doesn’t really take very much to get me excited about Sunderland, so the fact I’m so buzzing to see us play against Bradford on Tuesday in what really is just a meaningless fitness exercise should come as no surprise.
Still, you can hardly blame me, right?
It hasn’t been easy being a Sunderland supporter in my lifetime - or in any of our lifetimes, I suspect - so for probably the first pre-season since I took the reins as Managing Editor of this fantastic website around eight years ago, I have something to genuinely look forward to, and a team that I feel proud to support and celebrate.
That’s eight years of moaning, complaining, and getting my hopes, up only to be let down time after time; of buying into owners and players and managers, only to be left feeling like a mug for ever believing in them.
Now, however, we can finally relax a little.
Alex Neil is an absolutely brilliant football manager who would give any coach on this beautiful little island a run for their money. He’s switched on, intelligent, straight-talking, hardworking, respected, educated, experienced and genuinely just a man I place a lot of faith and trust in.
Right now, in my eyes, he can do no wrong.
And whilst I’ve been critical of him in the past for the way he handled the sacking of Lee Johnson and the subsequent appointment of a successor (oh, and the whole Defoe saga which I won’t go back into because nobody really cares anymore), Kristjaan Speakman is doing a sound job and appears to be connecting everything from the senior management, the ownership, the squad, the academy, the recruitment team and everything in between very well.
Stuart Harvey is bringing some really exciting young players into the club, and I’m sure that more will follow, whilst we’ve made it a priority to tie down our best young players to new deals.
We appear to have our collective heads screwed on, and are trying to operate on the front foot - a far cry from previous years where we were often so slow to react it was as though we were wading through quicksand, thereby encouraging the vultures to pick us apart.
Combined with the good feeling that’s hanging over from the fantastic promotion we earned at Wembley in May, that’s leading to a very optimistic feeling from us all going into the new season - something that has been reflected in everything we’ve seen thus far in pre-season, including the 2-0 loss that we suffered to Roma in Portugal.
Settling in #AjiArrives pic.twitter.com/b9tTr8iO4u— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) July 15, 2022
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the performances that I’ve seen to date is just the intensity of the way we’re playing.
We’re not conforming to the typical style that most sides adopt during pre-season, with players looking to avoid any real physical confrontation or exertion, and merely hoping to get through the game without injuring themselves or doing anything daft. Instead, we’re playing at a high, aggressive tempo, and we’re playing at a level that I’d expect us to play at in the Championship.
To me, that is a promising sign: that these players are hungry to earn their places in the side, that they’re excited about their football and the season ahead, and that - perhaps most importantly - they’re enjoying being here and working under this manager.
It’s a nice change, and it’s making watching these games significantly more interesting.
We do of course have three more games to play over the next week, and I could be made to look very silly if the good performances don’t continue, but that’s kinda my point - I’m full of belief in Alex Neil and these players, knowing that they’ve got what it takes to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
Sure, we all know we’re light in a few areas of the squad, but we’re not far off, and in adding quality in key positions already we’re creating competition in a squad of young, talented and hungry players who aren’t here to just sit on a fat wage packet and stagnate - they’re here to better themselves, better their teammates, and to better Sunderland AFC.
That can only augur well for the coming Championship season.