RR: What would you say are the biggest challenges facing a team coming up from League One after promotion in their first season back?
UTMP: The initial adjustment to the quality week in, week out is a challenge and it’s important to get early points on the board.
You notice pretty quickly the step up in quality, and every player has to be on it every game, so having a squad of players with similar ability can allow you to keep players fresh and play those in form.
The manager also needs to be set up well as it’s a tactical battle every week, so you’ll get caught out if you don’t have a gameplan.
RR: Everyone knows that Sunderland are a massive club, even at this level. How much do you think that counts in the Championship?
UTMP: Signing ex-Pool loanee Dan Ballard for over £3m shows the scale of the club compared to ourselves.
If you can attract the right players then being a big club counts for something, but it’s not a guarantee and will come with the risk of raised expectations vs a smaller club with the same squad.
Everyone will be right up for it coming to the Stadium of Light, but it’s the first time you’ve had positive momentum in the last twenty years, so the fans might make a difference.
RR: What would you say is the hardest thing about the Championship?
UTMP: Stringing a run of results together.
In League One, getting from midtable to the play-offs comes quite easily if you can string together two or three wins. In the Championship, you need five or six positive results to even climb a few places, and there are so many teams vying for those top spots.
RR: What do you believe it takes for a team to get promoted out of the Championship?
UTMP: It’s not really a question I can answer fairly as this is only our second season at this level. If I’m assessing how far off we were last year, given there was some talk of the play-offs around Feb-March (as there always is at our club), it ultimately came down to two factors – conceding too many late goals and not killing teams off when we were in leading positions.
We dropped a lot of points having not been outclassed many times last year, so keeping it tight at the back and having a goalscorer up the top could’ve made the difference.
RR: Do you think that there’s a big difference between the clubs in the Championship and the clubs in League One, or not?
UTMP: In terms of the size of clubs, absolutely not.
The likes of Derby, Ipswich, Pompey and Wednesday are clearly a similar size to most Championship clubs.
But if we look at the quality on the pitch, I’d say the gap is pretty significant.
While you’d probably say the bottom five to seven teams are similar to the top five to seven in League One, the top fifteen teams in the Championship are miles away from the majority of sides in League One, and that’s the difference.
RR: Why do you think well-established clubs struggle to gain momentum in the Championship, whereas in recent seasons smaller clubs like Luton and Barnsley have successfully broken into the Play-Offs and came close to promotion?
UTMP: The Championship is just a lottery and with football, momentum is everything.
If you can slowly build something or be fortunate enough to stumble across a group of players with the right manager, at the right time, anything can happen.
It looks like Sunderland could have done that with Alex Neil so I expect the positive momentum to continue – it just depends how long you can keep the feel-good factor, especially at home if you have a couple of narrow defeats on the spin.
RR: Figures show that Championship clubs in recent seasons are spending far less on transfer fees than they have in previous years. Why do you think that is?
UTMP: Clearly COVID has had an impact and there’s been a shift towards investing in stadium expansions, training facilities and general off-the-field improvements including youth development in recent years for all of the country’s top teams as well as those at our level.
Hopefully it’s a sign that football is waking up from the ludicrous scenes we’ve seen in recent years.
Sunderland is a good case study for what can happen when you throw money around on players without a clear identity, so I don’t need to tell you any of that, but it seems that most clubs now are trying to build in the right way - with the likes of Directors of Football, Heads of Football Operations etc having longer term plans outside of the one man in the dugout, which can quickly change.
RR: Sunderland fans aren’t quite sure what to expect from the Championship - what would your advice be to any SAFC fans reading this when it comes to expectations?
UTMP: You won’t have had much experience at this level as you flew straight through it last time, so I’d say you should be excited by it.
There’s a lot of big clubs and every game is one to look forward to.
It’s a really good, competitive league in its own right and there’s a huge gulf in quality, but also exposure in the wider media than there is in League One.
Being in the Championship makes you that bit more relevant to wider football fans which is always nice, and you can start to dream of a return to the Premier League at the beginning of every season – I fancy you won’t be hanging around for long, so enjoy it while you can before you get back to the promised land.