In the aftermath of Sunderland’s disappointing defeats to Bradford and Accrington (the former a game during which we played with a team that will bear little resemblance to the one which kicks off against Coventry), and Monday evening’s draw with Hartlepool, there were a smattering of familiar mutterings about the relative strength of our squad, and whether we are doomed to struggle this season.
Though it is never nice to see worries creeping in, this isn’t unfamiliar territory.
Last summer, Wigan were supposedly going to walk all over us on the opening day, but it was Sunderland who emerged victorious, sparking an early-season run that was extremely promising. With that in mind, writing the lads off at this stage, before a ball has been kicked competitively, does feel extremely premature.
With under a week to go until the season begins, and over a month until the transfer window closes, pre-season results have not exactly been sparkling, and it is clear that some of our players have not fully shaken off the rust.
Admittedly, you never can tell exactly how much effort is being expended at this stage, and when the real action kicks off next Sunday, in what will be a cauldron-like atmosphere at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland will undoubtedly be as close to full throttle as possible.
And so, to the state of play regarding transfers.
In the first instance, it is a safe bet that a lot of hard work is being done to strengthen the squad, and just because a running commentary is not being provided, it doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Kristjaan Speakman knows he has to deliver, and especially so, given the lingering skepticism about how effective a transfer broker he actually is.
On the other hand, his work this summer hasn’t exactly been bad. After all, the signing of Aji Alese was only teased a mere fifteen minutes before it was announced, and it certainly took caught everyone off-guard. It would be no surprise if further signings are completed in such fashion, either, despite media speculation linking us with moves the likes of Nathan Broadhead, who made such a positive impact last season.
So, what of our current group of players? One ace card that they can certainly call on is our manager.
Since he has been at the club, one of Alex Neil’s most admirable qualities has been his ability to help players improve their form, to help them emerge from barren spells and become a more influential presence in the team. Like Peter Reid and Roy Keane before them, playing for Neil is the kind of task you ought to relish as a player - can you reach his standard and extract more from yourself than you thought possible?
Corry Evans is proof positive of this.
Under Lee Johnson, his form was patchy and his influence as skipper was often minimal, to say the least. Following Neil’s arrival, however, he unlocked something within himself to become the midfield enforcer that he was originally signed to be. He never looked back and was duly rewarded when the season ended.
At this moment in time, despite protestations to the contrary, Sunderland do not necessarily have a ‘poor squad’, and we don’t have a squad that is comprised of callow, unproven youth players, either. Bailey Wright, Lynden Gooch, Luke O’Nien, Alex Pritchard, Danny Batth, and the aforementioned Evans are all vastly experienced, and Ross Stewart is not a kid, either. It is these players who will have to take the lead and set the example this season.
What we do have is a squad that is certainly light on numbers, and is largely unproven and untested at second-tier level, but that does not mean that the players currently on the books are not capable of stepping up and becoming impactful at Championship level, and if they can be augmented by some quality additions, the picture will change rapidly. Indeed, the signing of Portsmouth goalkeeper Alex Bass, in a move that should provide a solid backup option for Anthony Patterson, was a welcome development on Tuesday evening
The argument that ‘this squad was only good enough for fifth in League One’ could be countered with the fact that they made a high-pressure playoff final against Wycombe look like a walk in the park. Being able to handle such an occasion certainly says something for their resilience. They got us into this league, and they deserve the opportunity to show that they can play in it.
The likes of Alese and Daniel Ballard have arrived with decent pedigree and tremendous potential; Pritchard ought to be more than capable of affecting games against a higher calibre of opponent, Jack Clarke has all the attributes to be a hit for us, and there is no reason why Stewart cannot hit the goal trail this coming season.
The model that was implemented last summer was the right one, and lowering the age of the squad was a positive move, but one that requires time in order to bear fruit. When the likes of Dennis Cirkin and Dan Neil experienced dips in form last season, many were quick to write them off, but that is simply a byproduct of putting faith in young players: patience must be shown.
Reinforcements are undoubtedly needed, without a doubt, and it feels like a safe bet that by the time the window slams shut, the makeup of the wider squad will be somewhat different to how it currently looks. Indeed, perhaps this will be similar to the 2006 summer window, whereby we had to wait until the final knockings of the window to gain a true picture of the squad, and that season wasn’t exactly a grind, either.
The notion that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus was going to splash money around like water, an idea in which that ridiculous story, published last season, about a £60 million transfer kitty would’ve played a part, was never going to materialise this summer.
It is common knowledge that the finances of many Championship clubs are in a perilous state, and the last thing we need to do is fall into that trap again.
There should be an urgency to strengthen and an acknowledgment of weaknesses in certain areas, but not necessarily alarm at the current state of play.
We could’ve easily cherry-picked free agents and journeymen in this transfer window, on the basis that they would ‘do a job’, but those days are gone. This is a new era, and although it might not always be plain sailing, the potential rewards for getting it right are enormous.