Despite the demand from some fans for new signings and the accompanying ‘scarf picture’, I am quite comfortable with Sunderland’s position at the present moment. And although it might sound slightly strange, I am also quite happy with our transfer business so far.
Granted, Daniel Ballard and Aji Alese may be the only ‘new’ faces to have arrived at the Stadium of Light this summer, but with the familiar figures of Anthony Patterson, Bailey Wright and Lynden Gooch all signing new contracts, as well as Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts returning on permanent transfers, it speaks volumes about how things are being run by Alex Neil and the people above him, along with the atmosphere that he has created within the club.
Before Neil arrived, our 2021/2022 season was in real danger of being derailed, potentially taking our promotion hopes with it.
After Lee Johnson’s departure, things felt rudderless and worryingly lacking in leadership. Left without a permanent manager for almost a week, seven points were dropped after the hammering from Bolton, leaving us desperate and deflated.
At that stage, we needed a lift and an injection of energy. Hopes were pinned on the return of a former hero in Roy Keane, and you can understand why the club might have considered him, so bleak did things look at that stage.
From my perspective, I am now glad they went in a different direction because Neil has brought a steely calmness to the club, but he is also someone who possesses the experience and the hunger needed to fulfil the club’s objectives.
In addition, Neil’s qualities are complemented by the intelligent work being done by Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman. Rightly or wrongly, Speakman has often been subjected to criticism regarding different issues since the beginning of his time at the club, but he has also had a positive influence in many respects.
From my perspective, Speakman and his recruitment team have shown a good eye for finding value in players and recruiting the right talent for the team. Signings such as Dennis Cirkin, Ross Stewart, Alex Pritchard and the aforementioned Clarke and Roberts are proof of this.
Over the years, we have stood and watched as many Sunderland managers and chairmen have thrown money at overrated and overpaid footballers who joined this club for the wrong reasons, but thankfully, those days appear to be firmly in the past.
Nowadays, there seems to be a collective strategy and understanding of how the club is operating. Indeed, Neil cited this recently, when speaking about what sort of players the club are looking to purchase.
We’ve still got signings to make in a variety of positions, so we know we’ve got work to do. We’ve worked well and we’ve worked quietly in the background to get players in, which has been good, but we all understand we have more to do because it’s going to be a long, hard, difficult, season in the Championship.
It’s a tough level to operate at, particularly given the fact that we’ve not been there for a significant amount of time, and I think it will certainly open some eyes when we get there.
The strategy of this club is to buy young, developing, players, improve them to create value within the team and the squad, and they will be supplemented by senior players in there - a Danny Batth, a Bailey Wright, a Corry Evans, an Alex Pritchard. The majority of our transfer fees, in fact pretty much all of our transfer fees, will be spent on younger players - not on guys that are older.
The signings of Roberts and Clarke particularly excite me. Before they made the switch to Sunderland, these were two players whose respective careers were at a crossroads, but the club offered them an opportunity to revitalise themselves in an environment where they could excel.
Credit must be given to both players, because they have both often excelled in red and white, and with the new season on the horizon, it is likely that they will play an integral part.
The strategy of targeting young players and finding value in untapped potential is particularly noteworthy in the case of Clarke.
He is clearly a player with significant talent, and like many highly-rated prospects before him, perhaps he got lost in the vacuum that is often occupied by young talent at top Premier League clubs. He simply needed to revitalise his career somewhere, and now he is at a top club with a marvellous opportunity to kick on.
During the coming season, Sunderland’s games are likely to feature regularly on TV, and if Clarke can prove his worth, it will not be long before other teams will begin to take notice of his ability. In many ways, it is a match made in heaven, for both club and player.
Alex Neil’s determination to maintain the nucleus of the squad from last year is something that is particularly pleasing. Along with the winning momentum being carried from the playoff final victory, Neil is creating a strong team spirit, which can often carry a team very far in the league, particularly during difficult periods.
Clubs such as Sheffield United and Wolves have shown that with a strong core of players, forward momentum, and team spirit, Championship promotion is certainly achievable.
I am not suggesting or predicting that we will be promoted at the end of 2022/2023, but the current strategy that the club has in place makes me feel quietly confident as the first game draws nearer.
For once, we are entering a new season without the pressures of previous failures, and we are being guided by a manager and a team that, together, can certainly excite the fans.
Bring it on!