First and foremost, let’s get this out of the way - THESE GAMES ARE ALL ABOUT FITNESS!
That said, it doesn’t do any harm to get into the habit of winning, scoring goals and keeping clean sheets, so if we manage to do any of that in the games we’ve got coming over the next three weeks, it’ll be an added bonus.
Whilst performances ultimately don’t matter, they can aid a player when it comes to catapulting themselves into the thoughts of the manager. I have no doubt that Alex Neil will have taken note of who has come back for pre-season in the best condition, and the players who have looked after themselves the most during the break will have the leg up on those who haven’t.
There are a clutch of players who can go one of two ways at this stage, and those are the ones I’m hoping will firmly grasp the opportunity to impress Neil.
I think back to last year and how Dan Neil burst onto the scene by basically playing left-back during pre-season, and that’s what kickstarted his Sunderland career.
At the time, we didn’t have another left-back, so Neil filled in, did well and ultimately ended up in the starting eleven for the first game. Things have changed since then and he’s barely featured under Alex Neil, but to me he still has a future here, as well as the ability to play in the Championship - he’s just got to prove it all over again.
Similarly, I’d like Jay Matete to take control of his own situation, now that he’s had six months or so to bed in.
I’m told that he was outstanding in the game against Blyth at the weekend, and hopefully that’s just the start of this lad knuckling down and showing the manager why he should feature in his plans during the coming season.
Another player who falls into this category is Jack Diamond, a player I think highly of.
In the eyes of many fans, he’s still got lots to prove, and some have already made their mind up and want him to go.
Harrogate’s manager let the cat out of the bag when he said Sunderland plan to loan him to a League One side, but for as long as he’s still with us in pre-season, Jack has a chance to change Alex Neil’s mind and show why he should be kept here, and not sent elsewhere.
Mark Wood says…
The first player I would highlight in this regard is Dan Neil.
One year on from an impressive pre-season, during which time he forced his way into Lee Johnson’s plans, he finds himself with a similar challenge again, this time under Alex Neil.
During 2021/2022, he looked like one of our best players during the first half of the campaign, and it was perhaps inevitable that he was going to run out of steam at some point during his first season of senior football.
People forget that this is a player who had never been out on loan to another club, but he showed in the first half of the campaign what an outstanding talent he is. We know there is a player in there, and from the amount of transfer speculation surrounding him in December and January, it seems that there were a couple of Premier League clubs that thought so too.
Now, he needs to make the same impression on Alex Neil at a higher level - in the Championship. Personally, I don’t care if it happens during pre-season or over the next ten months, just as long as he does.
The second player who I hope will grab his chance is Trai Hume.
He only played a few games after joining in January and looked a decent prospect, but it was his first taste of of senior football in England. With a good pre-season under his belt, I would like to see him really kick on.
If he does, he would give us something that Sunderland were rarely blessed with during our time in the third tier - an orthodox right-back.
Kev Campbell says…
I agree that all of the aforementioned players have something to prove as we head into our official pre-season games.
However, when I think of players with a lot on the line, two senior players come to mind, and the first is Elliot Embleton.
Embleton spent the majority of 2021/2022 on the fringes of the starting eleven, but when he was called upon, he came up with some big moments for the side- none more so than his the early goal in the playoff final.
2022/2023 will be a major test of his development. Making the jump to the Championship will be a challenge, but one that Embleton certainly has the talent to achieve. It seems that he’ll get his chance to make a spot in the team his own, and a good showing in Portugal could ensure that he gets his opportunity.
The second player who has a place to earn is Danny Batth.
After forming a good partnership with Bailey Wright, Batth has certainly won the respect of the fans, but his spot in the team may not be as secure. Dan Ballard’s signing will put a good deal of pressure on Batth, as the youngster will surely have signed with the intention of getting regular game time.
I have no doubt that he has a part to play, but in order to maintain a regular place in the side, a good pre-season campaign is a must.