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North Carolina v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly

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Can Sunderland ever really ‘win’ when it comes to pre-season?

Sunderland’s pre-season schedule hasn’t satisfied everyone - but it’s nothing new!

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In the aftermath of Sunderland’s mini-tour of the USA, it appears as though there are two distinct schools of thought on whether our Stateside sojourn was actually beneficial, as the new Championship season looms into view.

On one hand, with three victories and plenty of encouraging performances, you could argue that the trip was a success, in addition to giving Lads fans across the pond a chance to see and meet their heroes in the flesh.

Indeed, judging by some of the stories and anecdotes sent to us from supporters in America, memories were made that’ll last for a long time, and that’s always worth something.

On the flip side, some have argued that the standard of opposition wasn’t high enough, that it’s given a false reading of where we are, and that the matches didn’t provide the kind of preparation needed ahead of what’s sure to be a challenging campaign.

Getting into a lather about pre-season and firing off jibes about ‘pub teams’ is nothing new, particularly when there’s often little of substance to discuss and the vacuum is filled with clickbait stories about players deleting Sunderland-related Instagram posts and the like.

However, it’s also fair to say that when it comes to putting a pre-season schedule together, the club can seldom truly ‘win’, even if results on the pitch go our way. For proof of this, you only need to look back to last summer, as we prepared for our Championship return under Alex Neil.

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

After a friendly against Rangers that was abandoned at half time when the caretaker seemingly disappeared with the keys to the generator room and a decent workout, albeit in defeat against Roma in Portugal, we returned home and duly stumbled to defeats against Accrington and Bradford.

This led to much uproar about our prospects for the coming season and exactly how good the squad actually was.

Eight months later, we were preparing for an unlikely tilt at the playoffs on the back of a thrilling season, and not a single supporter was reflecting on what had happened during the warmup games.

Had we lined up fixtures against a higher calibre of opposition and certain players had suffered injuries, the outcry would’ve been along the lines of, ‘Why expose players to that risk for meaningless friendlies?’, and the club would’ve found itself firmly under the gun.

The fact of the matter is that our USA trip was put together with some clear objectives in mind: to increase the fitness of the players by placing them in some challenging environments, to integrate the new signings into the squad, and to shake off the rust and build confidence ahead of the new season.

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

This isn't to say that Hemir’s goals, the impressive return to form of Jay Matete or the performances of Jude Bellingham and Nectar Triantis mean they’re going to rip up the league this season, but heading into the new campaign with some good results in the bank, especially for those who are still settling in, should never be dismissed.

Winning breeds confidence and our record of one loss in our last sixteen games, all told, should do the players no harm at all. Also, you simply can’t put a price on what the likes of Chris Rigg, Zak Johnson and Matthew Young will have gained from being around the senior players, and the club should be commended for taking them along.

If there's one thing that Tony Mowbray has always done well, it’s ensuring that the players don’t get too high after victories or too downcast after defeats.

He and his players will know that there’s a lot of hard work ahead, but the camaraderie among the squad and the focus we’ve shown so far suggests that nobody is slacking off. Standards are much higher at Sunderland nowadays, and there are plenty of things to tighten up ahead of the curtain raiser.

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

The fact is that Sunderland history is littered with examples of the perils of reading too much into pre-season, and the danger of placing too much emphasis on what are often glorified training sessions.

In 2013, Paolo Di Canio took the players to the Far East where we acquitted ourselves very well against Tottenham Hotspur in the ‘Barclays Asia Trophy’. That day, David Moberg Karlsson looked like he was the second coming of Nicky Summerbee, and we all know what happened when the real action started.

Judging by what we’ve seen, the Lads are looking fit, strong, and highly motivated for the season ahead. At this stage, that’s all we can really ask for, and there’s no reason why we won't be 100% ready when the whistle blows against Ipswich.

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