In the days leading up to last season’s opener against Coventry City at the Stadium of Light there was a tangible feeling of relief and excitement by just the sheer fact we were back in the Championship.
It was a feeling that we rode from that final whistle at Wembley in late May all the way through to the last day in July when the Sky cameras rolled into town to document Alex Neil’s boys returning to the second tier of English.
That relief to be out of League One seemed to override everything else and when considering the outcome of last season ahead of time, it appeared that consolidation in the level above would be deemed a success because we were an unknown quantity in so many ways.
Firstly, we had only finished 5th in League One by virtue of a late surge that saw us go 13 games unbeaten into the play-offs, which in itself came after sacking our manager in late January and took two weeks to make the next appointment. Then we only made the final because of a last minute Patrick Roberts goal at Hillsborough.
Then, by the time the fixture against Coventry came around, the only debutant in the starting XI was Dan Ballard. It meant that we didn’t know what to expect from last season. We couldn’t have argued with those who thought we might be dragged into a scrap at the bottom as much as those who argued we’d be fine and do well.
Alex Neil clearly wasn’t a fan the recruitment policy because he did a runner after five league games. But this is something that pre-dated Neil and added to the air of mystery as we signed young players, who most of us had never heard of.
Sunderland have been rebuilding under the guidance of Kritsjaan Speakman and his recruitment team since January 2021, which is six transfer windows if you include the current one - or four if you discount the one we’re in and the first window that came a few weeks after he arrived.
The fact that we have a policy we stick to regardless of the situation clouds expectation levels. Without aiming to compare what we’re doing in anyway to the ‘moneyball’ theory, there is a part of the Moneyball movie where Brad Pitt, who is playing Billy Beane, repeats “it’s a process, it’s a process, it’s a process” - and that could easily be applied to ourselves.
The pressure was off in many ways, especially from the fans in the stand, and what followed may have propelled the process along ahead of time.
Especially when you take into account the loss of what was a popular manager, long term injuries to key players including the main goalscorer, the average age of the squad being around 23, most of the players had never played in the Championship, times when multiple players were out of action for vital games and not forgetting we played some pretty incredible football along the way.
We’ve clearly established that last season we were an unknown quantity and expectation levels were exceeded - so where does that leave us in terms of expectation levels ahead of this season?
Common sense would tell you that the target should always be to exceed the results of the previous season and this is what is currently driving expectations, but do we take into account where we are in the long-term rebuilding process and remind ourselves that this is only our second season at this level?
Once again, of the six outfield players added to the squad only one is over the age of 20 and no doubt most of us had only heard of two of those six names before this summer. Our trust in the club, based on those two and a half years we have as evidence, means, rightly or wrongly, we expect good things.
The young players on the books last season were also able to perform with a little more freedom. Once we gathered a bit of momentum, it could be viewed as a ‘free hit’ due to the fact we were not expected to challenge for the top six. This time around there could well be a different level of pressure to succeed, not only from the stands but the pressure they could apply to themselves after a season at this level under their belts.
Could it possibly manifest in pressure on Tony Mowbray if we hit a bad run of results or would fans still take into account other aspects such as the age of the squad and internal targets that might be set? On the flip side, would we still consider a top-six finish overachieving or is that par for this coming season?
It’s a strange time where if you ask ten different people on how we’ll get on this season you could well get ten very different answers, all of which are highly likely to be a higher expectation from this time last year, which is natural.
But the answer might also depend on where you think we are in the long-term process of rebuilding the club.