As the formalities of the 2022/2023 season have finally been wrapped up, Friday’s publication of Sunderland’s retained list brought no real surprises and in many ways, it was actually quite encouraging.
The highest profile departure, that of the hardworking and always dedicated Carl Winchester, was expected, as was Jacob Carney. Meanwhile, the remainder of the list comprised fringe players for whom a fresh start was inevitable, and hopefully they’ll all find new clubs soon enough.
Suffice it to say, after the thrilling yet ultimately slightly disappointing ending to the season, whoever’s signed this summer can be certain of two things: that they’re joining a club where the standards are higher than they’ve been in years, and that they’ll have to work exceptionally hard to break into and retain their place within our starting XI.
Ultimately, the aim has to be that we head into 2023/2024 with the core of this young and exciting squad intact.
Yes, the rumour mill is bound to whip up speculation and panic at various stages during the offseason, but the fact remains that we’re entering the summer in a very strong position, with foundations built on altogether sterner stuff and no reason to believe that our squad will be pillaged for pennies.
In the first instance, we weren't so heavily reliant on loan players last season that their departure has left a gaping void that we’ll be frantically trying to fill.
Amad’s status as arguably the greatest loan signing in our history naturally means that replacing him directly will be nigh on impossible, but with rumours of Jobe Bellingham’s imminent arrival continuing to circulate, Edouard Michut returning to PSG doesn’t necessarily represent a setback, as exciting as it would've been to sign him on a permanent basis.
Elsewhere, it’s a shame that Joe Gelhardt has returned to Leeds after a less than fruitful spell in red and white, but he does so having always shown a positive attitude even as the goals weren’t coming. Indeed, as Kristjaan Speakman recently revealed, injuries hampered him during his time here, so perhaps his performances weren’t always reflective of his true ability.
Fundamentally, the nucleus of the squad is very strong, and as our injury crisis finally eases and some high quality players make their return (not least our first choice central defensive partnership of Danny Batth and Dan Ballard) and others, such as Niall Huggins, continue to build up their fitness, we’ll be blessed with some superb options.
Yes, greater defensive depth and reinforcements upfront (ideally in the shape of at least two new strikers) are a must, but let nobody claim that this team is in need of major surgery, because nothing could be further from the truth.
It feels inevitable that there’ll be a different dynamic as we dip into the summer transfer market- not least because of the raised expectations that’ll doubtless reach fever pitch ahead of next season.
One year ago, the brief was to build a team that could survive in the Championship at the very least, having ‘only’ finished fifth in League One the previous season. This time around, it’ll be to ensure that our sixth place finish is built on and that another playoff campaign is the minimum achievement come next May.
Granted, it feels inevitable that the league will be even more competitive, but that’s not a bad thing.
Such a situation can focus the mind when it comes to transfers, and it can also improve players and unlock even greater levels of performance, and that’s what Tony Mowbray and his coaching staff will doubtless be looking for.
As Roker Report’s Paddy Hollis wrote on Saturday, scattergun recruitment and purchasing players on the basis that they’ll ‘do a job’ won’t be the method of choice this summer, and nor should it be.
For all of Speakman’s critics, there’s no doubt that he’s helped to reshape our entire recruitment strategy for the better. It’s an ongoing process and is by no means perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it once was.
Suffice it to say, there are some intriguing questions that’ll hopefully be answered in due course.
Will Ross Stewart’s contract issue finally be cleared up one way or the other? Will bids arrive for our most coveted players and will we (offers notwithstanding) be willing or able to fend them off?
If our first summer window as a Championship club was about ensuring that the transition between divisions was as smooth as possible, this one will be all about honing, fine tuning, and covering off any potential gaps that could hinder us next season.
It’s certain to be an exciting period, and with our growing reputation as a club that gives youth a chance, it may well be that yet more promising talent from the UK and overseas will be arriving at the Academy of Light over the coming months, eager to make an impression and to be part of something special.