Well, here we are. The start of the new season is almost upon us, and this time next week we’ll have a better sense of how well equipped this team is for Championship football.
The pre-season has seemed a strange one to me; I don’t know about you. It’s been a lot shorter than usual, due to the play-offs extending our season by three weeks or so and the new campaign starting a couple of weeks earlier than usual because of the ridiculous winter World Cup.
But it’s also the first pre-season for a long time that we’ve not needed a major squad overhaul. And the first one in a while that we’re not either bedding in a new manager, or the present incumbent has doubters to prove.
I do wonder what other people’s expectations of pre-season transfers are, given how we’ve operated for the past decade or so. To me, a club that has to buy nine or ten players for the first team is a club that hasn’t done things right in the previous couple of seasons. Often that’s been the case for Sunderland.
But not this time.
Our transfer business has been slow, that’s undeniable, and understandably Alex Neil would have much preferred to have another three or four players in. A keeper, a striker and a full back are ‘musts’ before the window shuts at the end of August. But as we proved last season, we’re willing to bide our time to get the right player in, rather than snap someone up just because we’ve got a position to fill.
In an ideal world, you’d have all of your signings in on the first day of pre-season training. But that scenario is a relic of the pre-transfer window days. With the summer transfer window running till the end of August, clubs have an incentive to keep hold of players to get bigger fees, and players have an incentive to stay put to see what transfer business happens elsewhere and to drive up a better contract.
To me, it’d make far more sense to have the transfer window close before the season starts, but when has common sense and football regulation even gone hand in hand?
I read with interest (and some disbelief) an article by a local journo over the weekend that was pretty negative about the squad in general. Leading with ‘Sunderland’s squad is weaker than it was in May’, it bemoaned the fact that we’re five players short of making up the numbers we ended last season with.
If you’re looking at it one-dimensionally, then factually, yes – the squad is weaker now than it was in May, by virtue of the simple fact we have fewer players.
However, when Will Grigg, Aiden McGeady and Lee Burge, who barely – if at all – played last season, are included in that five (Broadhead and Hoffmann the other two, by the way) it undermined the point somewhat.
The team that finished last season was different proposition to the one that began the campaign, too.
It was only towards the end of the season that Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts reached peak match fitness – and that showed in the playoffs. These are two players who are more than capable of playing in the Championship, if not higher, and they’ve both got huge room for development and improvement too.
Danny Batth, too, added a significant amount to the team when he got his place alongside Bailey Wright, while Jay Matete is another relative newcomer that has bags of potential.
And then you’ve got the players who have developed over the course of the past 12 months. Dennis Cirkin – who, if you remember, didn’t sign until the end of the transfer window last summer – improved as the season went on and will be better for it.
Dan Neil, to whom Alex Neil has given a lot of game time in the pre-season, will also be a better player this season than he was last year. While in goal, Anthony Patterson got better and better as the games went on, and you hope that will continue.
And of course, there’s Ross Stewart, who was a completely unknown package last summer.
Added to that, we’ve got the likes of Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard – experienced players who are proven at Championship level, coming into the season fit and settled at the club.
Naturally, we all crave new signings, and as I mentioned earlier, there are at least three positions in which we’re desperate for reinforcements. If you’re a glass-half-empty person the ‘what happens if Ross Stewart gets crocked’ question will be one that’s keeping you up all night at the moment.
And, to be fair, that’s a serious concern.
But we know we won’t be in that position when the transfer window closes.
Overall, I’m pretty relaxed about how we’re shaping up heading into the new season. The team Alex Neil managed towards the end of the season was a different proposition altogether to what we’d seen earlier in the campaign.
Our transfer business has been conducted with the medium-long term primarily in mind, and we’ve come into the Championship with a team that can be evolved and built upon rather than needing to be changed completely.
And, after all of the preseasons of huge overhauls, questions and doubts, that’s something that can surely give us all confidence.
Yes, we need some signings, and yes, the Championship is going to be a tough, tough test. But this is a work in progress – and I believe we’re progressing in the right direction.