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South Shields v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly

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Reader’s Corner: Previewing the season ahead for Sunderland

RR reader Jack Tallentire delves into the pre-season transfers, where we need reinforcements, and how we might shape up next season.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So, how do we feel about this season?

The mood among the fanbase is probably the most positive that I can remember in my 20 years or so of being a lads fan, which is reflected by the club record 33,000+ season tickets that have been sold so far.

Some might find this strange – after all Sunderland were a Premier League club for many years of late. So why would another season in the second tier be anything special?

This, in my opinion, is because of a few things:

1. We’re still riding the crest of the wave from promotion, a wave that nearly saw us do back-to-back promotions last year.

2. This squad of players are the most likeable in my time as a supporter, with a clear togetherness and spirit. We are a world away from the spineless mercenaries signed in the tail-end EPL days *cough* Jack Rodwell *cough*.

3. Some of the football played last year was the best I’d ever witnessed – see Clarke’s Puskas-worthy goal away at Reading – and if we keep the core of the youngest squad in the Championship together then things can surely only improve.

Reading v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Magic!
Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

Now, nothing is perfect in life, and nothing more so than with Sunderland AFC. There have been one or two perhaps understandable moans and groans about how the club religiously and unequivocally cling to the recruitment ethos of the past couple of years. However, from top to bottom, the club generally seems to be singing from the same hymn sheet, certainly more so than the rest of the past decade, anyway!

I think an interesting point is this – if we’d had an average, middle-of-the-road season cosy in midtable last year, what would expectations be like this season? As ‘lofty’ as they are now? I reckon probably not.

However – with success brings inevitable expectation, and I suppose a club as big as Sunderland were never going to be able to play the underdog for very long.


What do we think of the gaffer?

Let’s be frank, he wasn’t exactly an appointment to get you out of your chair at the time, but I think the wonders Uncle Tony worked last season were pretty special, despite all the issues he had to deal with.

We absolutely battered our way into the play-offs on the final day with a team of children, no strikers and practically no fit central halves, something he didn’t even manage in five years at Blackburn. I think it’s fair to say he’s made a few people eat their words after taking over from Alex ‘The Bald Judas Snake’ Neil in August last year.

In the past year, Mogga has implemented a passing style which is a joy to watch, week after week. He clearly gives this squad confidence to play with maturity and composure well beyond its years, and I think you can tell they hold him in very high regard.

San Antonio v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I could personally listen to him speak all day. You can just tell he’s such a passionate lover of football at all levels and a pretty lovely guy too. I hope we have him for more than just the normal year most SAFC managers get.

Again, it’s not possible for everything to be rosy when it comes to Sunderland. I get the feeling Mowbray sometimes has a bit of a tense relationship with our board, in particular Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman and Majority Shareholder/Chairman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus. The comments post-the Luton second leg didn’t even fill me with hope that he’d last the summer!

If we combine that with the articles released linking us to a whole host of potential manager targets, it’s perhaps a reminder of how our ownership aren’t afraid to be ruthless in their quest to return us to the promised land.

Just look at how they sacked Lee Johnson when we were 3rd in League One.

As unthinkable as it would’ve been to let Mowbray go after last year, I do get the feeling that his two-year deal might not be renewed should we fail to go up once again. Fortunately, it looks as though the speculation has quietened, and Uncle Tony seems happy enough to have another crack at promotion with the Mackems this year.

Looking ahead to the new season, I think Sunderland is as perfect a fit for Mowbray as he is for us.

He gets to manage arguably the biggest club outside the EPL for a start, I mean come on, who wouldn’t?

He knows the league like the back of his hand – nearly managing 400 games at this level.

He’s also got a reputation for working with young players – if that alone doesn’t make him a great fit for this club then I honestly don’t know who else is. I hope this might give us a bit of an edge when trying to recruit some talented youngsters from the EPL’s ‘big boys’ (and no, I’m not including Newcastle in that!!!).


The window so far

Incomings

All in all, I would say it’s been a positive (if perhaps unspectacular) transfer window so far. We’ve signed four players already before July, which is absolutely unheard of for this team. Where are the last-minute panic signings we’re so used to? Looking at you, Will Grigg.

We’ve recruited the height and physicality which was so badly exposed and punished against Luton at Kenilworth Road. In fact, not one of the players we have signed has been below 6”2 – it looks like Speakman and Head of Recruitment Stuart Harvey took our play-off exit pretty personally.

Unsurprisingly, the running theme of recruiting pretty much exclusively young players with potential has continued as well, with the ages of players signed so far being 17, 19 and 20 (x2).

New Mexico United v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly
New signing Triantis - one of four 6ft 2in arrivals!
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Defensive reinforcements have arrived in the way of Nectarios Triantis and Jenson Seelt, two 6 foot 3, 20-year-old central defenders signed from Central Coast Mariners and PSV, respectively.

I won’t lie – I’d never heard of these lads in my life before the signed, so can’t really predict how well they may or may not adapt to the division, and the general rigours of the English game.

What I will say, however, is that for the first time in a long time, I have total faith in our board to make shrewd, clever recruitment decisions. Even if they are all barely above GCSE age.

The real headline signing of the summer so far has, of course, been Jobe Bellingham, signed from Birmingham City for an undisclosed fee, rumoured to be around £2-3 million. It felt like this would be an inevitable transfer given the strong connection Jobe has to Speakman, as well as first team coach Mike Dodds, who are both credited with a large part in his and his brother Jude’s development.

As much as I hope Birmingham’s off-field issues are behind them given their recent takeover, they, in all honesty, probably helped accelerate this deal due to it suiting all parties. Jobe is another who is pretty unproven, at least at senior level (only 26 appearances for BCFC’s first team).

There can be no doubting his clear potential though – big, strong and good with his feet, he looks far more advanced than his 17 years.

Here’s hoping he can be as good as his older brother, who by the way, I don’t think he should ever be compared to. He has the right to write his own story in the game – and I’m sure Jude can only be jealous of his brother being at the biggest club in the world!

San Antonio v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly
Signing of the summer so far?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Onto the biggest problem area for Sunderland in the past two years, the strikers.

Sunderland hadn’t signed a permanent centre forward since the ‘Loch Ness Drogba’ himself, Ross Stewart (I prefer Highland Haaland honestly), two and a half years ago from Ross County. Well, another has finally arrived in the form of Hemir, signed from Benfica B on a five-year deal.

At 6”4 and looking to prefer the ball at his feet as opposed to lumped down his throat, he looks a similar profile to Stewart actually, and will hopefully be a capable deputy until Stewart is back fit (or leaves, but that’s a whole other saga).

In any case, it looks like young Hemir will be leading the line come August 6th, barring any big-name striker signings in the next 2-3 weeks.

From the minutes he’s had in pre-season, he looks very sharp (and absolutely gigantic), quick along the ground with a tremendous leap to boot. Here’s hoping he can hit the ground running, as I can foresee him playing a huge part this year given our seemingly constant centre-forward issues.

Finally, as an added bonus, 16-year-old Chris Rigg signed a scholarship deal to keep him at the club for a further two years, snatching him from the dastardly clutches of the club he supports, Newcastle United. This is no doubt due to the promise of regular football and a pathway straight to the first team, something he would have no chance of with a move to a higher division. He’s looked immense for such a young man in pre-season and could be a wildcard for later in the season if he gets his chance and takes it.

San Antonio v Sunderland Pe-Season Friendly
Riggalinho
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Potential incomings

We’ve been linked with a whole host of names throughout the summer, as expected. The obvious two areas in need of strengthening now are holding midfield and the aforementioned central forward position. This former is due to club captain Corry Evans likely being sidelined until October/November time.

An extremely ambitious move for Everton forward Tom Cannon has also been mooted, which I personally can’t see happening after his brilliant season for Preston last year. Everton are absolutely desperate for firepower, and Cannon surely will get his chance at the top level if Dyche likes what he sees in pre-season.

Matija Frigan from Rijeka, a 6 foot 1 and 20-year-old Croatian striker, has also been linked for relatively big money (around £5m if reports are to be believed). However, I’d be surprised if that amount of money would be chucked around for another unknown quantity.

It’s refreshing to see us explore all kinds of options to fill this current void, however, as a repeat of last season’s striker crisis would be rough viewing once again (essentially having no forwards for the last three months of the season).

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Cannon has been linked with us, as well as with a return to Preston
Photo by Dave Howarth - CameraSport via Getty Images

Outgoings

In terms of outgoings, there haven’t been any of serious note, excluding loanees returning to parent clubs.

Leon Dajaku struggled to make a mark throughout his time here – he was practically signed accidentally after promotion from League One triggered his transfer. It was one of the rare transfers under the current regime that didn’t work out.

Fan favourite Bailey Wright (G’day and Goodbye you Australian sweet prince) is another who had probably given everything he had left to the cause, however, he will be forever loved for his blood and thunder performances which helped us to promotion to the championship.

Carl Winchester is our final permanent outgoing, someone who bought into the ethos of Sunderland from the moment he set foot through the door, and I have no doubt will be an immense signing for Shrewsbury this year. Good Luck Winniesta!

Goalkeeper Alex Bass has also recently joined AFC Wimbledon on loan in League Two, after never really challenging Patto for the number one jersey. It wouldn’t surprise me if we’ve seen the last of him, with rumours of bringing in Man U youngster Nathan Bishop as a replacement becoming louder by the day. Bass will be remembered most fondly for his blatant injury-time handballed equaliser against Newcastle U21s last season, coined ‘The Hand of Cod’, something he admitted immediately post-match. Always an easy way to write yourself into Sunderland folklore.

Talk of Danny Baath’s departure to Blackburn seems to have quietened, which will be a huge bonus to Sunderland after him arguably being our best player last season. Totally dominant in the air, his presence in the heart of defence was the perfect platform for our talented attack to thrive throughout the season. I think had he or Dan Ballard been fit for the play-offs we could have seen a totally different outcome.

Mansfield Town v Port Vale - Sky Bet League Two Play-off Final
Nathan Bishop’s been strongly linked
Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Let’s talk about ‘The Model’

This leads me onto an area of much discourse at the club – ‘The Model’. Batth’s potential departure (for a reported fee of nothing) would probably have raised several questions from the fanbase as to the philosophy that the club have hugely bought into the past couple of years. This includes the idea of not standing in players' way when a move opens up to them that is in their best interests, even if it leaves the club in a worse position.

While admirable, if we’re not careful I could see this backfiring massively, such as when we let Tom Flanagan go to Shrewsbury and left ourselves short of central defenders.

He, of course, as many others have, scored upon his return to the SoL that season!

In fact, the whole idea of replicating what clubs like Brighton and Brentford have done so successfully might be great in principle, but the club has yet to be really tested in the way of losing its best players for big profits as of yet. I can see this being a real litmus test to see how well the fans buy into this when it does inevitably happen.

The main issue will be – and I will reserve judgement on this caveat - whether our famously expectant and demanding fanbase is yet ready to stomach losing its best players year after year, such is the nature of this plan.

Being a ‘feeder’ club has seldom been attributed to Wearside’s Red and Whites, and such a situation will no doubt be a tough pill to swallow.

Just look at some of the fan’s reactions to Jack Clarke potentially moving to last year’s champions Burnley!

No, Sunderland are not really a Brighton, or a Brentford, or even a Luton, and I mean this in the most respectful way to those teams. I’m not sure if a project similar to those mentioned has ever even been attempted by a club with the history Sunderland does, never mind being sure of such a project likely being a success.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Clarke’s remained put despite a lot of transfer speculation
Photo by Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Does this mean it was a bad idea to start with? I certainly don’t think so.

It’s early days, but what I’ve seen so far is a different Sunderland to anything I’ve ever witnessed. It was about time something dramatically changed after years upon years of short-term fixes and rudderless leadership.

It might be a real culture shock, but maybe a tempering of expectations is just what the doctor ordered, and is the next best step to ensure Sunderland never risks its future in the same way it did in the past few years.

After all, not every club can rely on an Oil-backed State to decide to plough billions into it, for whatever ulterior motive, to achieve success.

In any case, it is nice to see the club standing firm in holding out for the best deal possible when push does come to shove, however.

Some of the bids received for Clarke, for example, have been nowhere near what he is worth to the club, particularly when he has several years left on his current deal.

Of course, as with everything, it will be a fine balance between a few factors for us to succeed in the short to medium term.

Mowbray has frequently mentioned that we will need experience in the team if we want to properly challenge for promotion. While the young ‘uns did very well last year for the most parts, there were times when we did look a bit over-awed in big games.

I’m mainly thinking of Coventry away (where admittedly there was very little protection from the referee), as well as the thrashing by Stoke at home and, of course, the play off semi-final at Luton.

I suppose it could be argued that some of our younger players can now probably be considered experienced – the likes of Dan Neil and Dennis Cirkin, with over 100 and 69 appearances respectively across the past two seasons.

However, both are still barely over 20 years old and play week in week out.

It is a hard balance for the board to get right though.

It’s been made very clear that very little is willing to be spent on players with minimal resale value, meaning that getting experienced cover for the likes of Evans may have to be done through loans and free transfers.

That being said, if we can keep some of our ‘older’ heads fit across most of the season (i.e. Baath, Evans and Stewart), there’s no reason we can’t match last season’s success and finish in the play-offs again.

North Carolina v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly
Experience is important
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Likely line up

I think at the time of writing, the starting XI pretty much picks itself, give or take one or two positions up for grabs.

Anthony Patterson – It’s been a whirlwind couple of seasons for Patto.

After being recalled midway through a National League Loan at Notts County to be thrust immediately into a League One playoff push – the 23-year-old has established himself firmly as number 1 and is widely regarded as one of England’s top young goalkeeping prospects (as rewarded by his call up to England’s provisional U21 squad for the Euros).

Trai Hume – Trai has cemented himself comfortably as SAFC’s first choice right back after taking a little while to adjust to life in England, after moving from Linfield in January 2021.

He’s now a full Northern Ireland international off the back of his impressive performances, and I reckon he’s one of the most underrated players in the division.

Danny Baath – I’m hoping Batth stays for the season (amid rumours his contract won’t be renewed next summer).

An absolute colossal defender, Batth will surely be one of the first names on the team next year, although he might benefit from a rest now and then while we bed in some of the new boys signed in the summer.

Dan Ballard – Easily one of the best central defenders outside the EPL (and another full Northern Ireland international). If Ballard can get over his injuries which plagued him massively last year, the sky is the limit for this guy.

I genuinely think he will be playing EPL football in a year’s time, with or without Sunderland.

Dennis Cirkin – Another who had a fantastic campaign last year (in spite of injury struggles). Cirkin looks like he improves with every game, even chipping in with some vital and brave goals, such as the double to win away at West Brom, or when he concussed himself equalising with a header away at Milwall.

Has a very bright future ahead of him and I hope Spurs forget about the rumoured buy-back clause in his contract!.

Pierre Ekwah – Signed in January from West Ham, Ekwah initially struggled greatly with finding his feet in the men’s game, and took some pretty harsh stick early on after looking very raw in his brief cameos from the bench.

However, he well and truly stepped up in the run in into the playoffs and was the star man in our first-leg win against Luton at the Stadium of Light. He looks seriously gifted, and has showed he can glide around the pitch effortlessly.

He’s also, for want of a better term, an absolute brick shithouse! I sense this will be a real breakout season for him, and I think he could be one of our most important players this year.

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

Dan Neil – Every club loves a homegrown player, and none more so than Sunderland fans with Dan Neil. As previously mentioned, Neil has played a pretty large number of games for his young age, and he’s another who I think seems to improve week on week.

Last year Neil hugely improved the defensive side of his game, which was never really seen as a strength of his. He was statistically Sunderland’s most proficient defensive/ball-winning player, and I sense this year if he can pull together both the attacking and defensive sides of his game then he might well be one of the most well-rounded central midfielders in the division.

Another who I could see playing Premier League football in the near future, hopefully with Sunderland!

Jack Clarke – In my opinion Sunderland’s best player last season (even with Amad’s wonderful performances). Jack Clarke exploded in the Championship, having finally found a home since his big-money Spurs nightmare.

If we can keep this lad, which remains to be seen amid strong EPL interest, then I have no reason to doubt he can go on to better last year’s 21-goal contributions and potentially aim to be the best player in the division.

Alex Pritchard – Probably the most contentious decision in the XI, Pritchard in my opinion, is a vital cog in the Sunderland machine and the team always looks a great deal better with him in it.

He probably suffered as much as anyone last year with the lack of strikers to feed, and had to adapt his game massively, leading the line as a centre forward more often than not. He will probably share game time more next year with the likes of Abdoullah Ba and Jobe Bellingham also vying for the ‘number 10’ role.

Patrick Roberts – Described by Mowbray himself as ‘scarily talented’, Roberts is another who has finally found a home after years of mixed loan spells.

Untouchable on the right-hand side of the pitch at times, he formed a dazzling partnership with Amad last season where they would simply carve teams open, time after time, with quick footwork and expert short passing.

With an Amad-sized void in the team this year, the onus will be on Roberts to better his five goals and seven assists last year. I think he certainly has the talent to do so when cutting in from the right wing onto his wand of a left foot.

Hemir – With the news of Ross Stewart likely not being involved until potentially months into the season, it’s pretty reasonable to suggest it will be Hemir leading the line come opening day.

I can’t wait to see what he can do. He’s looked really sharp in pre-season so far and looks like he will be a real handful for defences with his pace and strength. He also doesn’t look half bad with the ball at his feet!

Honourable mentions

There are a few players just outside the starting XI who I think could still make a great impact. With utility men such as Lynden Gooch and Luke O’nein bound to always get plenty of game time, I think this will also be a huge season for the likes of attacking midfielder Abdoullah Ba and full back Niall Huggins, the former who has shown his pure quality in flashes last year, whilst the latter has been plagued by injuries from the moment he arrived on Wearside from Leeds two years ago.

Aji Alese is another who I could see being massive this year, injuries permitting. I think this lad isn’t far from EPL quality already, and looks equally capable at left back with his electric pace as he does at centre half (I prefer him in the middle to be honest).


Closing thoughts

It’s pretty clear I think that the club is in a really strong position going into the new season.

With several new signings already in place and the majority of the squad who did so well last season fit and raring to go., we should hopefully be a force to be reckoned with.

It should be said, though, that I think it’s going to be a significantly tougher division next year, given the quality of teams joining the Championship vs leaving it.

The potential Leicester and Southampton starting XIs in particular already look terrifying, whilst some of the teams coming up from League One (Ipswich in particular) look a different level to last year’s promotion winners.

However, I think that the squad having another season to develop, combined with our new signings, will hopefully bring cause for optimism and another season of improvement.

I believe if our young players continue on their current trajectory and we improve as I expect us to do, then another playoff finish can be very much in the conversation.

As a final point, its genuinely a pleasure to follow our club at the minute, something which I obviously hope will continue in the future. It’s a very rare occurrence for us not to be desperate for promotion whenever we find ourselves outside of England’s top flight – I’d go as far to say it’s normally the expectation.

There’s just something very liberating at the minute about taking each season and each game as it comes, though.

Is it just that this lack of pressure is maybe letting our younger players flourish a little bit more? Possibly, and whether expectations will soon shift to expecting promotion remains to be seen.

I think for now at least, Tony Mowbray’s 40,000-strong Red and White army should just continue to get behind the lads every week, come what may, and see what happens.

Who knows, it could be the start of something very special.

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