Lee Burge opens up on the battle between the sticks and why Sunderland have a point to prove this season
If Sunderland felt their six-month wait for a competitive game was a long one, they should spare a thought for Lee Burge.
For you have to go back to November 26 of last year and a 2-1 defeat to Burton Albion to find the last time the stopper turned out for the Black Cats in a meaningful fixture prior to his start against Hull.
Back then, Jon McLaughlin was the club’s undisputed number one – but following his summer exit, the baton has been passed to Burge.
The 27-year-old is now Sunderland’s first choice after an impressive pre-season, and started against the Tigers as Phil Parkinson fielded a side which is likely to be similar to that which kicks-off the League One season against Bristol Rovers on September 12.
And while being number one is nothing new to Burge – who already has over 170 senior appearances under his belt – he’s well aware of the pressure that comes with holding that position at a club the size of Sunderland.
"Of course it does [bring pressure], but I'm relishing it,” he said.
"I'm really excited for this season and I just want to go out there, enjoy every game and do the best I can for this club.”
There is competition in the goalkeeping from summer signing Remi Matthews who, despite a mixed debut against Carlisle United, is well thought-of by Parkinson.
Burge, too, knows only too well what an asset the former Bolton Wanderers stopper could be.
"He's a great lad,” said Burge of his fellow shot-stopper.
"I know who he is and I know of him and we've played against each other a few times. I know what he's capable of and it's good.
"He's another young 'keeper and competition all over the pitch is really important this season so we just have to make sure that, as a team, we're there for each other.
"Everyone will have their part to play and that's what we've got to concentrate on as a team,” he continued.
"We've got to stick together and make sure we're fighting for promotion this year.”
Matthews is likely to get his chance to stake a claim in the EFL Trophy tie against Aston Villa on Tuesday evening, after Burge featured in the win over Hull.
His start came after pre-season appearances against Gateshead and Harrogate in which he made some smart stops en route to two victories.
If anything, the Hull game provided a quieter afternoon for the stopper, who was untroubled during the 90 minutes – but could do little to stop the Black Cats exiting the cup on penalties.
"I think in the 90 minutes we were excellent, defended really well and I didn't have a save to make throughout the whole game,” he admitted.
"That just shows just how good of a unit and a team we are defensively.
“The penalties were disappointing, because you just want to at least get something on one. But it's the luck of the draw really.
"But in the 90 minutes, I think we showed we were the better side and unfortunately we just didn't manage to finish it off.
"You take it as another game, another 90 minutes under the belt and a clean sheet - which is really important for us at the back and as a team.
"I think if we play like we did today generally, I think we've got a great chance of getting promotion this season.”
And it’s that – promotion – which is squarely on the minds of Burge and his Sunderland teammates as the new League One season approaches.
The Black Cats were sat seventh in the third tier when the 2019/20 campaign was curtailed and still in with a shot of automatic promotion had the fixture programme be played in full.
There was a confidence within the Academy of Light that the side could have fought their way back into contention after some disappointing results in March, and that leaves the squad with a point to prove ahead of the new season.
"I think we were all very disappointed with how the season ended and this year we've got to stick together and make sure we're raring to go,” said Burge.
"To be honest, everyone has come back in such great shape and I think from the performances you can see that we're together as a team.
"It was disheartening to not to be able to finish the season, but this season we've got to really kick on. We know what we've got to do and I feel as a team we're ready to go.”
And key to any promotion push this season will be a strong atmosphere in the dressing room.
According to Burge, there is already a strong spirit being cultivated within the walls of the Academy of Light – which he feels is leaving Sunderland looking ‘better’ as a team.
"It's been brilliant,” he said of the spirit in the camp.
"All the lads have come back really fit and raring to go. We've obviously had new additions who have fitted in with the lads and we're just looking better as a team I feel.”