Are Sunderland ready for the Championship and what should we expect? What pre-season told us - and what needs to happen next
With pre-season finally over, it’s the obvious question to put to a head coach: Optimistic?
“I’m always optimistic,” Alex Neil said.
“Never more so than when talking to you lot - I’m certainly more optimistic than any of yous,” added with a wry smile.
Neil never misses an opportunity to suggest that the media are always quick to see the negative. The point really is that you can take some heart from the fact that Sunderland’s boss is in jovial spirits a few days out from the start of the campaign. That, it is fair to say, was not the case after Sunderland’s final pre-season game the last time they were in the second tier.
It’s also true that Neil’s positivity comes with a caveat, and a fairly significant one at that.
Sunderland’s squad as it stands remains short of cover and competition in a number of key positions, and that has been borne out in the pre-season results.
Rangers were outplayed before an untimely power cut in Albufeira, and by and large AS Roma were kept at bay a few days later.
There was some good football played in patches against Accrington Stanley and Hartlepool United, as well as some clear issues in terms of cutting edge. Dundee United were comfortably beaten, while at Bradford City there was what we will generously call a poor performance all round.
The upshot is that stepping up to a new level after four years in League One, Sunderland are heading into uncharted territory and no one is quite sure what to expect. The concerns, at this stage at least, would centre around two key areas.
One is clearly the transfer market. As it stands, Sunderland need another senior goalkeeper and two strikers as an absolute minimum if they are to have a squad deep enough to cope with the rigours of a 46-game season at a better standard. Neil’s comments through the summer so far suggest he feels a little more than that is needed.
So far, Dan Ballard and Aji Alese have added depth and long-term quality to the central defensive position but otherwise it is broadly the same group that finished last season.
You could view this two ways. One argument made is that Sunderland are taking the same group that finished fifth in League One into the Championship, and that this is therefore a cause for major concern. You could flip that though, and say it’s the same group who finished the last campaign sixteen games unbeaten. Even within that, the likes of Danny Batth, Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke were only hitting their stride around the time of the play-off campaign. They took Sunderland to another level, and have now had the benefit of a full pre-season campaign.
Add Neil’s tactical savvy and extensive Championship experience to the mix, and there are good reasons to think that the Black Cats can at the very least consolidate in this division.
Sunderland’s transfer headaches are concerning but commonplace. Though the season starts a week earlier this time around, the window remains open until the end of August and the market is generally moving to that pace. Premier League clubs have been unwilling to sanction the departures of young talent and fringe players until their own squads are better established, and the consequence has been second-tier clubs queuing up to fight for the same targets.
Middlesbrough, for example, harbour very credible promotion aspirations but like Sunderland have been unable to recruit a single senior striker up until this point.
The issue for Sunderland quite clearly is that they are coming from further back compared to these competitors. This is why Neil is concerned, conscious that there are seven league games before the window shuts and that anyone who arrives now will need time to get up to speed. The head coach knows a long, challenging season (his own words) awaits and he cannot afford to give rivals a head start.
The second broad area of uncertainty comes within the Sunderland squad itself.
While there is a small core with Championship experience, many are stepping up to the level for the first time. Dennis Cirkin, Dan Neil, Trai Hume, Elliot Embleton, Ross Stewart, Jay Matete, Alese and many more. All quite clearly have the potential to be excellent players at the level, but there will be a period of adjustment and dips in form are inevitable.
As Neil has himself said, there is excitement at the prospect of these youngsters potentially thriving, but there also has to be a realism about how such a young squad will fare overall.
Maybe how you feel about Sunderland’s prospects this season depends on what your expectations and ambitions are.
Looking at the squad right now and the gaps still remaining, it’s hard not to think that there will be challenging moments across the campaign. Particularly against the financial might of sides still benefiting from parachute payments, you suspect there will be difficult afternoons and perhaps some difficult runs of form.
If the goal is to consolidate and continue the steady progress since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival, then the retention of key talent (including Alex Neil) and the addition of players like Ballard and Alese has without doubt set the club on the right course.
In drawing a line (for the most part, anyway) under years of ownership speculation, Louis-Dreyfus has also brought a stability that will be crucial in uncertain moments on the pitch.
After the sparring was done, Neil did openly discuss the challenges he is facing at the moment.
The head coach spoke of being able to find his way through those moments last season when players had to operate out of position, or play through a lack of match fitness or even too many minutes.
He was clear that will simply not be possible this season, and in doing so probably captured the most sensible way of looking at the season ahead right now: “You will not get away with that in the Championship. I’ve been in that league for six or seven years and it’s a tough, tough league. If you’re not at it, or you’re not ready, you’re going to suffer.
"It’s right for us to be optimistic, but it’s right for us to be realistic as well."
Optimistic, but realistic. It feels a fair way of surmising where Sunderland stand, still really in the early stages of what will be a long journey back to where they should be.
The foundations are as strong as they have been in some time, and yet it is also abundantly clear that right now there is so much work to be done in the transfer market.Neil’s relative composure suggests he thinks he’ll get that support, and that he has confidence in the majority of his group to step up is obvious.
There is a coherence and a promise in this squad that is quite simply lightyears away from the last Championship group. That stems quite simply from better management and better structure from the top down.
Just don’t expect it all to be plain sailing.