From a successful and memorable trip to the USA to a feisty game against Mallorca, Sunderland’s pre-season schedule is entering its final stages, with the almost traditional game against Hartlepool to come tomorrow, before all focus turns to next Sunday.
Indeed, as Fabrizio Romano is fond of saying, it’s almost time for a collective ‘HERE WE GO!’.
It might not be for a new signing (although there’ll be more arrivals to come, judging by Tony Mowbray’s observations after Saturday’s game against Mallorca) but it’s time for us to gear up for another nine months of excitement, anxiety, frustration, and no small amount of curiosity at what might unfold.
After several months of discussion about our prospects for the coming season, a good deal of unrest at Sunderland’s shambolic off-field operation, some intriguing signings and an encouraging run of pre-season results, there’s less than a week until the 2023/2024 Championship season kicks off, with our curtain-raiser selected for a Sunday evening slot by Sky Sports.
Newly-promoted Ipswich will be our first opponents, and assuming we all get into the stadium in good time (here’s hoping the ticketing system’s teething problems are just that) there’s certain to be the familiar buzz that greets the first game of a new season and the Lads take to the field.
Ever since our playoff run was ended in frustrating fashion by eventual promotion winners Luton Town on a brutal night at their steel and timber-lined stadium, there’s been plenty of reflections on our near-miss and how we can build on what was undoubtedly a positive campaign.
Will this be the toughest Championship season to date? How can we strive to compete with the cash-laden former Premier League teams? Can last season’s unlikely top-six charge be equalled or perhaps even bettered, and will Mowbray’s fatherly managerial approach continue to pay dividends?
In keeping with how we do things nowadays, our summer transfer business hasn’t exactly hurtled along at breakneck speed, but some exciting breakthroughs have been made.
There’s been no dismantling of what was already in place or a mad rush to infuse the squad with a multitude of new signings. Instead, it’s been a slow, measured process, with areas of potential weakness targeted and players brought in to add depth and quality.
Nectarios Triantis and Jenson Seelt ought to provide some useful defensive reinforcements, whilst Jobe Bellingham and Bradley Dack should be more than capable of adding greater impetus to our attacking play.
Up front, the imposing Hemir, with four goals to his name already, could well be the kind of dynamic and physical centre forward we’ve lacked since Ross Stewart’s Achilles’ took a fearful clout on the banks of the Thames in January.
Yes, another senior striker would be a godsend, not least after new arrival Eliezer Mayenda suffered an early injury setback, and hopefully we’ll get one.
It’s also true that speculation is rife about the futures of certain key players, with rumoured Premier League interest in several of our most valuable assets providing a slightly uneasy undertone to the summer.
However, that’s no bad thing, as it shows that we’re a club where talent can thrive, and in any case, we’re under no pressure to sell our top stars- and certainly not for anything less than the going rate.
However, Jack Clarke isn’t playing like someone who’s seeking new pastures. Patrick Roberts, reportedly and somewhat laughably a ‘moody’ presence on the training ground, has looked menacing, sharp and focused so far, and Dan Ballard continues to take positive steps forward after an injury-interrupted debut campaign on Wearside.
In addition, we’re also keenly awaiting the return of several key players from last season, namely Aji Alese and Corry Evans, whilst the remarkable emergence of Chris Rigg has given everyone cause to hope that another homegrown player is on the verge of something special.
All told, things on the pitch are looking extremely positive, and with Mowbray tasked with embedding more youngsters into the team and helping them to develop, our ethos of showing faith in youth is in no danger of being knocked off course.
One thing that can’t be ignored, however, is the disparity between what’s happening on the field and off it.
Simply put, we’re currently a Championship club with a Premier League vision and a non-league infrastructure, and for all the progress made on the pitch, the picture isn’t so positive elsewhere.
The launch of the 2023/2024 strip was nothing short of farcical and our small-time kit manufacturing deal with ‘Just Sport’ is still causing more problems than it’s solving.
In addition, the botched transition to a digital ticketing system, when a gradual switch was clearly the way to go, has led to confusion and frustration for many supporters, and many of Roker Report’s summer editions of ‘Fan Letters’ are proof of this.
Much is made of the phrase ‘ambition’ in Sunderland circles, but it covers far more than what’s spent on the squad. It’s about ensuring that fans are treated properly, can find answers to their questions, and that those who want to spend their money on merchandise can do so without encountering crash-prone websites or a lack of stock.
In spite of the issues that need to be dealt with, if 2022/2023 was an unexpectedly exciting campaign, there’s absolutely no reason why 2023/2024 can’t yield a similarly positive outcome.
There seems to be an air of calmness around the club, a clear plan for the season ahead, and a steely determination from the players to ensure that there’s no drop off in standards.
When the whistle blows next Sunday, we’ll find out exactly how much the Lads have progressed since that disappointing May evening, and whether we can compete for a Premier League berth once again.