There is less than one week to go before Sunderland AFC begin to play Championship football for the first time since 2018.
As ever, this is the time of year for many fans to make their predictions for the season, with the gloomsters typically biting their fingernails and expecting a swift return to League One, and the happy clappers’ expectations rising to a point where a return to the Premier League is a mere formality.
The one guarantee about making a prediction as to how a forty-six game season will turn out is that such a forecast will likely be wrong. This is especially true given that there is another month of the transfer window to run, and most of the squads in our division remain incomplete.
When we entered this pre-season, there were so many unanswered questions as to what the future of the club would look like. Off the field, the ownership dilemma was perhaps the biggest and most important, and that question has been answered in full.
The importance of this should not be underestimated.
The Championship is traditionally full of ‘basket case’ clubs, those that have fallen out of the Premier League and suffered a financial meltdown, clubs that have gambled on a promotion that never happened, or have just been badly managed. Thankfully, we are not among them, and that gives us a huge advantage.
The other crucial off-field issue that needed to be resolved was securing the services of Alex Neil for this season, at the very least.
The manager is well-liked by the fans and seemingly by the squad. He has only known success in his time here, and because he is an experienced Championship manager, this puts us in a great position. We know that come November, there will not be a panic to change the coach, because the dangers of such a move are well-known to us.
Recruitment is the third area that, if we cast our minds back a few weeks, there were questions to be asked.
So far, those questions have been answered encouragingly. Importantly, those who we wished to secure on new contracts have been retained, and we have also secured the signings of two young central defenders to add to the experience of Bailey Wright and Danny Batth, and this gives us a nice balance.
Looking at the wider squad, we have a nice blend of youth and experience in central defence, and in attacking midfield, we can surely rely on the talents of Alex Pritchard, Patrick Roberts, Elliot Embleton and Jack Clarke at this level.
Other than those positions, however, there are big questions to answer about some of the members of the squad itself, and the gaps which are evident.
Can Anthony Patterson step up and become a Championship level goalkeeper?
This is the position that we did not get right during our last season at this level, and the consequences were disastrous.
However, we now have Anthony Patterson, a young player with a huge talent. What we don’t yet know, however, is whether he can play forty six games with sufficient consistency at this level.
No matter what else happens with the squad, we will be under much more pressure than we were last season and it is likely that we will lose as many games as we will win. This presents a significant different experience for a young goalkeeper.
This season, Patterson will be under the microscope with increased media and fan attention and the pressure that will bring. He can certainly make the step up, but will need some help, so recruiting an experienced alternative is vital, to keep him on his toes, to help with training, and to step in if and when he needs a break.
Do we have sufficient specialists at full-back?
At the time of writing, we have one left back in the squad – Dennis Cirkin - who will be playing just his second full season in the first team, and his first at this level.
The same questions which apply to Patterson apply to Cirkin.
Does he have the talent and the attributes to play at this level? Of course he does. But he will need certainly need support, and an alternative in the squad is a must.
On the other flank we have more options, with Lynden Gooch, Carl Winchester, Trai Hume and Niall Huggins, but each of those has a question mark against their name.
It is a vital position in the modern game, and I would hope that a specialist is recruited to fill the right-back spot.
Can our central midfielders dominate the physical battles and retain sufficient possession?
Central midfield is trickier to assess,
It is a position that is the heartbeat of the team. As with central defence, we have a nice balance of experience, with Corry Evans and Luke O’Nien, and the youthful talent of Dan Neil and Jay Matete.
The question in this position is around whether Evans can maintain his form and fitness, and whether O’Nien can lift his all-round game to a higher level (at which he has not yet played). For the two younger players, meanwhile, we do not yet know whether they are ready for the step up.
The raw ingredients are all there for, but do they have the game awareness to play consistently against seasoned professionals in this league? We will find out soon enough.
These players, as well as Elliot Embleton, deserve their chance to play but it will be a long, tough season, and recruiting an established talent at this level may be something to look at in January - or before - if we want to be greedy.
Where will the goals come from?
The most important position of all is that of the striker; the goalscorer, the man who turns a loss into a draw, and a draw into a win.
At present we have one option, in Ross Stewart.
No one can doubt the ability and effort that Stewart showed last season. His goal return and all-round game was excellent, and he proved that he can perform for forty six games.
In the Championship, however, his opponents will be better, both technically and physically.
The demands on his body and mind will be greater and his conversion rate will reduce as the goalkeepers will be better than those who he encountered in League One. Scoring goals will be harder to do, so he will need support and he will need to be rested as well, because much of our hopes for a successful season rest on his shoulders.
None of us can predict how the lads will fare.
The tools are all there but this will be a different challenge, and what has happened before can only give us a hint as to what might happen at this level. In the last four seasons, we demanded promotion, but this year, we don’t really know what to expect and as a result our expectations will be fluid as the season progresses.
How might the squad deal with a battle in the bottom third if that is what we have to face at some point? How will they cope with the weight of expectation if we are within touching distance of the playoffs?
We have a decent squad that has plenty of talent. Some of it is obvious and some of it is still very much a work in progress. The next few weeks will be fascinating as we watch the squad adapt to a higher level, and also witness some of the gaps in the squad being filled with some new talent.