Gary Bennett and Stephen Elliott deliver Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Lee Johnson verdicts and talk signings and promotion hopes
The new season is nearly upon us.
Sunderland will face Wigan Athletic on the opening day of the Black Cats’ fourth season in League One since relegation from the Championship on Saturday.
The Wearsiders are now under new ownership ahead of the new campaign but how has majority shareholder Kyril Louis-Dreyfus fared so far?
We caught up with Sunderland legends Gary Bennett and Stephen Elliott for an exclusive interview to discuss just that.
Benno and Sleeves also deliver verdicts on Sunderland’s pre-season performances, head coach Lee Johnson, the transfer market, and fans’ return to the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland legends Gary Bennett and Stephen Elliott deliver their verdict on the Black Cats’ mixed fortunes in pre-season games:
GB: “We’ve been there and we’ve seen them have a fantastic pre-season and then when it comes to the first game of the season it doesn’t happen for them.
“And we’ve seen them have disastrous pre-seasons and it comes to the start and we hit the ground running. I imagine it will take us four to six games before we actually know what the momentum is.
“Obviously, getting that understanding and team spirit between players and maybe the shape of the team. How are we going to play? The pattern of play. It won’t be from the first game, I think it will take four to six games before we actually know what direction we take.”
SE: I think the majority of pre-season games have been okay. I thought the tempo of the Hearts game was good and the lads started the game well. I expected Hearts to be more of the team on the front foot considering they have played a few games.
“But Sunderland looked impressive. Aiden McGeady was sharp which is a big plus. Looking at the squad you need him sharp going into the season with not that many offensive players.
“Elliot Embleton has looked good and will have benefited from having the half-season on loan at Blackpool last season. Provided we can keep hold of him, he’s someone who can be a big player in the upcoming season.
Benno and Sleeves talk transfers amidst a flurry of activity from potential promotion rivals Sheffield Wednesday, Ipswich Town and Wigan Athletic:
GB: “We talk about recruitment. We didn’t know which division we were going to be in until later on but we thought they would have had players in place who they were going to go for.
“Obviously, getting them is a different thing. The finance comes into it, how much is it going to cost? And the overall package. But I would imagine that Lee Johnson would be looking to bring in at least two or three more players.
“It’s a difficult one, because obviously, we have spent money before. Lots of money. But it didn’t bring us success so it’s half a dozen of one and six of the other in the market.
“Again, what we are looking for is maybe to get the quality of players into the football club to improve the quality of football week-in-week-out. It’s not just about how much money you can spend. It won’t guarantee you a promotion which we all know about.
“Look back at the last three years. Yes, we’ve been a little bit unlucky not to get promoted but we’ve been there or thereabouts. You could say that we should have been promoted but we didn’t and have sometimes thrown money at it.
“Lee Johnson has come in and he’s had to look at the whole financial situation at the club and has to cut his cloth accordingly. We can’t pay the money out to players which we have been paying over the last few years.
“We are a League One club and not a Championship or Premier League club anymore.”
SE: “I still think there’s a few new signings needed if we’re going to be in with a chance of getting promoted if we’re completely honest.
“I’m watching the pre-season games and some of the lads who have filled in at full-back have done all right there but I’d be a bit more confident if Sunderland had signed a few more seasoned pros.
“Even the goalkeeper situation worries me slightly. I know that Lee Burge has done okay in certain games but there’s been times where he’s been poor. I think since Jon McLaughlin has gone, it’s a position which has really shown me that it needs strengthening. A solid goalkeeper gives a lot of confidence to the back four.
“I still think another striker is needed too. We lost Charlie Wyke and I know a lot of people were indifferent about his overall game but ultimately he scored 30 plus goals and that’s a lot of goals to be gone from your squad. So we need to look at where those goals are going to come from.
“It doesn’t seem like Will Grigg has got going for Sunderland and sometimes that doesn’t happen, I’m not sure he can be the answer but Ross Stewart could be a good player. But I would still feel more comfortable if they could get another one through the door. Maybe someone like Jerry Yates, who was at Blackpool last season, to cause a bit of havoc.”
Is Lee Johnson still the man to take Sunderland forward to the Championship? Gary Bennett and Stephen Elliott offer their opinions:
GB: “I hope so. Fingers crossed. Everyone is thinking the same question: is he the right man for the club? At the end of the day, like everything else, you’re judged on results. Whatever his name is and whatever reputation he has. It’s all about results.
“He’s now been able to bring in some of the players he wanted to bring into the club and maybe now he’ll be able to stamp his own style of football on the club and it will be down to him and hopefully he can get it right.”
SE: “He will have learned a lot from last year. The fact that he got the team into a position where they were in contention at one stage. I think he made a few errors and could have done things a little differently towards the end of the season.“I think he deserves the chance to have a fresh go at it and have a full pre-season behind him and work on his ideas and a bit of continuity is good to have after the past couple of years.
“But it’s a tough start to the season.”
What about Sunderland’s new ownership and their policy of building the club from the ground up? Benno and Sleeves offer insight:
GB: “It’s not going to be an overnight success. I think they’ve got a five-year or three-year plan of how they want the club to be run and how they want the club to develop. And to do that you have to lay the foundations.
“Over the years, the supporters and everyone related to the club have been talking about this. Abot recruitment, about the academy, about the scouting system. The new owners have come in, looked at it and shall we say updated everything.
“At one time, we were talking about the Academy of Light being the best in the country but over the few years it has become dated and it needs freshening up and fresh ideas. So hopefully the people who have been put in place can bring that to the table.”
SE: “I think it’s very important for the football club to have structure right from the youth team right up into the under-23s and the first team. I think there needs to be progression of young players and I think young players need to be protected.
“We’ve seen over the years a lot of good players that have gone off to other clubs for next to nothing and that’s something that needs to change because Sunderland is a huge club and any young player should be able to stay at the club and be given an opportunity to play at this club before they move elsewhere.
“That would mean Sunderland will benefit in terms of getting more money from clubs in the future. And something needed to change as it wasn’t correct what was happening at the Academy of Light.”
Based on what we’ve seen from Sunderland so far, do Gary Bennett and Stephen Elliott think this could be the Black Cats’ year?
GB: It’s the million-pound question, isn’t it? We’ve said that for the last three seasons that we’ve gone into the seasons being favourites to win the league and it just hasn’t happened.
“Maybe this season where I think the focus isn’t directly on Sunderland. Obviously, you have the likes of Sheffield Wednesday who have come into the division and Ipswich Town who have spent a lot of money as well so people are maybe tipping them to go up.
“Because the focus ain’t just on Sunderland now as the big club, maybe we might be able to just quietly get on with our job.”
SE: “I am worried that we haven’t seen much activity. I know we’ve signed Alex Pritchard and Corry Evans, two very good players on paper but will these lads stay fit? I’m hoping that these boys are ready.
“There’s still activity to come I’m sure but at this moment of time, with the squad the way it is, I wouldn’t be confident that it has enough to win promotion but there’s a long time to come to get bodies in.
“If we get off to a half-decent start while bringing some new players in then I don’t think it would be the end of the world.”
Sunderland’s players are set to be handed a HUGE boost with fans set in line to return to the Stadium of Light this season following the pandemic. Sleeves and Benno offer their thoughts:
GB: It’s that old scenario which we’ve all heard time and time again about the supporters that they can be negative. But the Sunderland supporters are like the 12th man. We all know that. As long as you give 100% they will be right behind you.
“And where else will you get 30,000 for a League One game week-in-week-out. At the end of the day, that’s how it is. It’s not going to change and the support hasn’t just happened overnight, it’s been there every season.
“The supporters play a huge part. But when players come out and use it as an excuse that the supporters put them under too much pressure… that’s why you sign for the club! One reason that you sign for Sunderland are a big club is to play in front of big crowds.
“If you can’t handle that then you shouldn’t play for a big club and you should go and sign for a club where there’s only 5,000 people. But don’t blame the supporters.”
SE: “It’ll be good to have the fans back. Obviously, having 30,000 plus screaming the lads on is going to give you a boost.
“I hope the lads can get off to a good start and the fans can stick with the team because I would still feel a bit more confident with a few more bodies through the door in the squad.”