Two matches into my pre-season and the ritual jousting with Alex Neil has begun!
We ended last season with a cuddle at Wembley and have started this like a picador and bull. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Alex Neil’s no nonsense approach proved itself last season and the early signs are they will do so again this season. Bradford City highlighted weaknesses but Dundee United illustrated strengths. Pre-season is all about fitness and preparation and yes, of course, experimentation. As Neil said post Bradford, he would rather make the mistakes now than in the season.
I was impressed at Tannadice Park. Alex Neil admits he is minded to play four at the back, even though when at Valley Parade he reverted to a back four they looked poorer than they had with the three that started, but fundamentally the way he is setting up the team a four seems the system with which the team is more comfortable.
The lack of an alternative to Ross Stewart is a concern albeit a concern which Alex Neil is well aware and wants to get resolved sooner rather than later. Ironically one of our ‘differences of opinion’ post match at Bradford City was over Lynden Gooch. Alex Neil insists he is a right back/wing back citing it’s the position he has played since his arrival.
On pointing out Gooch has historically played as a winger or number ten brought a look of disbelief and the remark ‘that was years ago’. Well, technically it was only last year but I can understand where he’s coming from having arrived and by his own admission in the first few matches, not known the players’ names or where they played. It’s interesting though that here and now with a clear issue up front Lynden Gooch is not being given a run out in the forward positions.
Overall though the mood shift from last season is significant. The changes in the ownership situation have clearly helped and the continuity of Alex Neil as head coach is a massive factor. For once we are starting a season with a coach we may actually end the season with!
There is no doubting Alex Neil has the pedigree and the manner with which he engineered Sunderland’s promotion was heartening. He knows the Championship inside out.
Recruitment, as Gary Bennett will remind one, is the key now. So far, although it’s been a trickle rather than a flood, the new arrivals have impressed me. We know all about Jack Clarke of course, but Dan Ballard and Aji Alese look like astute signings.
They are both highly regarded and the evidence is in the reaction of Millwall and West Ham fans at the news of their departures for Sunderland. The potential of both has been plain to see in the minutes they have played so far in pre-season. Alex Neil confirmed at Valley Parade the wheels are in motion to bring players in and he would rather it were sooner than at the end of the window and to an extent we have to trust the recruitment team. In my opinion they’ve done well thus far.
Clearly Sunderland’s squad is going to be one of the younger in profile in the Championship but there is a balance through the squad with the likes of Pritchard, Evans and Wright lending Championship experience and the likes of Roberts, Clarke, Hume, Cirkin, Embleton, Matete and above all Dan Neil, could prosper at this level.
Dan Neil has had an impressive pre-season to date and I’m looking forward to watching him in the second flight. Roberts of course has previous Championship experience too as well as in Scotland. Embleton impressed at Blackpool. The Championship won’t phase Luke O’Nien but it will be interesting to see where Alex Neil sees his future in the team. Jack Diamond remains an enigma to me. I’m not convinced he is ready for the Championship.
Anthony Patterson is an excellent goalkeeper but unquestionably an experienced keeper needs to come in. Patterson though has earned his place and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge him a start against Coventry and in fairness where we are at the moment he s more than likely to be between the posts on July 31st.
The team that played Dundee United to my mind won’t be far away from the team that starts the season against Coventry City for whom ironically Callum Doyle will most probably start. Benno and I were never convinced Alex Neil trusted Doyle but perhaps ultimately he was undone by the number of matches he played under Lee Johnson and by the time Alex Neil arrived he was destined not to see the best of the youngster who was clearly burnt out. Hopefully it’s not a case of the one who slipped through the net.
Fundamentally we can debate the merits of the squad until the cows come home but essentially I am very optimistic for the season ahead. The club is sorting itself from top to bottom and it is a far cry from the basket case when they were relegated from the Championship in 2017.
The fact season card sales have reached the level they have is tangible evidence of the mood shift. It’s been a long four years and sometimes I pinch myself that we were actually a League One club but I have four years of badges from Accrington Stanley to prove it did actually happen. I wonder if they will produce a badge for the pre-season friendly?!
There’s going to be an unerring sense of deja-vu this weekend but finally, for once, we know we won’t be going back … will we?!