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Sunderland v Luton Town - Sky Bet Championship

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Judging Our Progress: What happens in the next stage of Sunderland’s rebuild?

We can’t afford to plateau at this level for too long, but on the other hand we all recognise the folly of chasing the fool’s gold. The next stage in our rebuild needs to be handled carefully.

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

Fifteen games in - which is a third of the way into season 2023/24 - and it would seem to be a reasonable time to assess how Sunderland AFC are faring.

A record of seven wins, two draws and six defeats doesn’t represent an outstanding start but neither is it a poor return, in fact, it leaves us in the very tidy position of eighth place and well within striking distance of the top six.

With yet another irritating international break to come we should also have some players back from long term injury and our young players will have had a little more time to settle in.

There is plenty to look forward to in the run up to Christmas.

This season has seen a continuation of the good football which was so enjoyable last season.

Although we are clearly missing the quality of Amad – which team wouldn’t – and we still haven’t replaced the goals and forward running power of Ross Stewart, others have stepped up a level or two and you would hope that there is more to come from our young summer signings.

Those signings — Hemir, Rusyn, Mayenda, Seelt and Triantis — haven’t given much to the first team to date.

This isn’t a worry or a surprise, as they were all signed with a future way in advance of November 2023 in mind. As was Jobe Bellingham, who is the sole contributor from the summer intake — and what contributor he has been.

Sunderland v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When you look at Mowbray’s go-to first eleven this season, around 70% of the starters were with us in League One. We have had three transfer windows since promotion and only Ballard, Ekwah and Jobe are signings, since then, who are certain starters.

That doesn’t mean that the other players who have been brought in have been failures. They have just been bought for their potential, for the future. Not all of them will make it but their talent is obvious and it will be interesting to see how they grow over the next few months. There is a long way to go this season and they will all get chances.

It is easy to forget that back in August 2022 there was concern as to whether the group of players who got us up would be good enough for this level. It is now so obvious that they are and to a man they have flourished. It has been a joy to see the likes of Patterson, Hume, Cirkin, Neil and Clarke grow as players and as men over the last 12 months and they can clearly all go a good bit further yet.

They have formed a core group which has made us a top eight team in this league. That is no mean achievement that they should be proud of, and for which Mowbray should take great credit for.

However, the big questions for now are - how much further that group can take us and for how long can we keep them? Then how many of the younger players will step up and how long will they take to get to the level of the current first team and then beyond that? That after all is what they have been brought here to do.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It is then necessary to add in the complication that envious eyes from the Premier League are being cast over that core group. In the next couple of windows there will be huge pressure placed on the club and the young players if we are to maintain our upward trajectory. Judging success in football is all about achieving year-on-year improvement.

If players are to leave then we will get good money for them. The recruitment team have earned our trust to reinvest that money well when it arrives.

However, since promotion the club has invested with very much with the long term in mind. Short term signings have been extremely rare. That policy has served us well as it has given us a low cost, hungry and talented squad with an appreciating value.

This season is showing however that we are a little bit behind the top four teams. Not by much, but we are a few players short of maintaining a challenge on those automatic places.

Can the gap between those clubs who have come down from the Premier League with parachute money and some Premier League level players be bridged under the current model? Or will that model need to be tweaked as the club develops and continues to regain some of its financial strength through current successes and player trading?

The indications from the club are that it will be an incremental improvement as the club recovers at all levels from the trauma of the six seasons previous to 21/22. The amount of work to rebuild the club after it was gutted should not be underestimated or forgotten.

The Academy has been improved and the squad re-modelled to be youthful and competitive with further talent in the development pipeline. In addition, we now recruit players from anywhere in the world, which shows that the investment in the scouting network has been made.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There are structures in place to keep us progressing. However, these structures are still way short of what we would need if we were to be promoted – we would need to shop in very different markets to those which we are in now.

All of this is positive. But there is always a but. At some stage we will have to make the next step, leaving it to small incremental improvements won’t get us there - the gap between where we are now and where we need to be is just too big.

The next step, the step from where we are now to making a sustained challenge for the top two places will be a difficult and an expensive one. All aspects of the club will need to be improved and upgraded.

As fans of this club we will expect that in the next year or two, there will come a point when we demand it. We can’t afford to plateau at this level for too long, but on the other hand we all recognise the folly of chasing the fool’s gold. The next stage in our rebuild needs to be handled carefully, to a plan and with intelligence.

The current strategy is correct, but there will come a point when the accelerator needs to be pressed to move up to the next level. Those in charge have earned our trust and they have our confidence - it will be fascinating to see how that next chapter in our club's rebirth is handled.


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