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Hartlepool v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly

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Sunderland are an unknown quantity in the Championship, but why shouldn’t we have optimism?

The new 2022/2023 Championship season is nearly upon us, and Finlay Anderson looks at why we should have hope and optimism heading into this campaign.

Photo by Michael Driver /MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So much has changed since we last stepped foot inside of the Stadium of Light on May 6th.

We officially broke our infamous Wembley hoodoo, the club’s ownership situation has been carefully negotiated, Alex Neil has managed to strengthen the squad in key areas, the team had a productive trip to Portugal, and gained crucial match minutes in pre-season matches closer to home.

All in all, it’s been a very fruitful 12 weeks since that first leg against Sheffield Wednesday, and suddenly, optimism is ripe ahead of the start of a Championship season.

For once, there’s very little cause for concern, and not another League One season to look ahead to; finally, Sunderland have broken free from their third tier shackles, and the Championship awaits.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

But, just how prepared are the Black Cats for their first season back in the second tier?

In truth, until Sunday, we really don’t know. In Alex Neil’s words, Sunderland are “an unknown quantity” within this division: we just simply don’t know what to expect.

The Black Cats haven’t really given this division a good crack in almost 15 years: the less spoken about their last season in the Championship, the better.

Yet, this side is “an unknown quantity”. There’s a lack of experienced Championship personnel in this side, and in a rather staggered and extraordinary season, we simply just don’t know how this crop of players are going to fare.

Hartlepool v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Michael Driver /MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The four-week extended winter break due to the Qatar World Cup is going to be pivotal in terms of form, momentum, and everything that comes alongside that.

It’ll act almost like a circuit breaker in the middle of the season, and its impact will probably be largely determined by what the clubs do within the break.

But, before that winter break, if Sunderland get out of the blocks fairly quickly, there’s no reason why this can’t be a successful season for the club.

And, by ‘successful’ for Alex Neil’s side, it is probably a secure mid-table finish. It would, arguably, be a shock if we are challenging for the play-offs or promotion: as Alex Neil rightly pointed out in his phone-in with supporters on Wednesday evening, only one of the last four League One play-off final winners have managed to avoid relegation the following season in the Championship.

This is more of a season of security for the Black Cats: we need to batten down a comfortable finish before we can look ahead to a more sustainable future plan.

And, by and large, the summer recruitment looks to be planning for that hypothesis.

The club have continued to add to the plan drafted up last summer, and through the addition of Dan Ballard and Aji Alese, they’ve sought youthful talent with some top-level experience - Ballard with Millwall and Arsenal, and Alese with West Ham.

Sunderland v Rangers: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Yet, the club are far from done with their business. The need for a striker was a must, and the arrival of Ellis Simms from Everton gives us a huge boost ahead of the season starting.

But that is by no means the end of our business: Nathan Broadhead is one that still needs a fair bit of force to push through, whilst there still remains a couple of finishing touches that Alex Neil needs.

Indeed, there may be supporters who look at the squad and point out how it is mostly made up of a side that finished fifth in League One last season, but to those fans, I just say wait.

Give these players a chance to show their true talent on the Championship stage; there should be optimism after the summer we’ve had, and the thought of a Championship season on the horizon.

Sunderland v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

Yes, pre-season may have had a few bumps in the road, but the use of Neil’s two-squad rotation seemed a perfect way for match minutes - and in stages of the last couple of weeks there was some positive play.

The 45 minutes against Rangers in Portugal was an impressive display against the Europa League runners-up, whilst a changed side held their own for 75 minutes against a strong Roma side, the Europa Conference League winners.

Therefore, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be looking ahead to Sunday and beyond: for some fans, this is a new experience, with new hope and optimism.

When Sunday comes around, relish it: it’s the start of a new season, and a packed-out Stadium of Light with a pre-match fan-led display awaits.

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