Phil Smith: New era but familiar summer nerves as Sunderland fanbase wait for crucial transfer breakthroughs

These were the moments we needed and after so long, how fortunate we were to have so many.

Tuesday, 13th July 2021, 12:41 pm

The best, in this corner of the world at least, was saved pretty much until last.It's all gone wrong and it's slumped back in your chair, telling anyone who will listen that it's over. Jorginho doesn't miss. Never. It's that simple.Heads are either in hands or staring at the floor. Jordan struts forward and mouths 'no problem, no problem'.He's speaking to the referee, who is presumably telling him to stay on his line, but really he's speaking to all of us.Jorginho steps up and we've seen him do this so many times, so you wait for Pickford to go and the ball to roll agonisingly into the bottom corner.But Jordan waits, waits, waits. And then he goes. A second of agony as the ball trickles onto the post and then that explosion of noise, fists pumping and arms flailing.Of course, it all lasts barely a minute.The air has gone from the room and now the beer just tastes warm and flat and it's all over and dear me, we're at work in seven hours.

On Wearside we know that sequence well. The excitement, the early surge of emotion, the tension and the ultimate agony.

That second half in particular will have felt achingly familiar, when there seems to be nothing left in the legs and it's just drifting and there doesn't seem to be anything anyone can do.

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Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman
Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman

But all that has happened since has only reinforced the pride in that team, the way they stood up for who they were and what they believe in and above all else, did it together.

I'm grateful to them, too, for giving us the memories of sharing this summer and those moments with friends, for giving us back some of what we had to give up in the previous 18 months.

That's why we bother, isn't it? And the most heartening part of it all is that the way those players continue to carry themselves tells you that despite anything that is thrown at them, they will continue to be a team you're proud to support.

The tournament itself felt like some kind of brief, blissful release.

Anyway, It was fun while it lasted. The League One season starts in just over three weeks and Sunderland have no full backs.

Alarming?

Not yet, perhaps, but you can understand why for now there will be many who are feeling more trepidation than excitement as thoughts begin to turn back to the carousel of club football.

If it's fair to say that there is much about this new season and what Sunderland will bring to it that remains unknown, then it's also only right to point out that this has been a summer

of significant change even if that is yet to really bear much fruit in the transfer market.

Investment behind the scenes has been significant, in everything from pitches to backroom staff and the infrastructure at the Academy of Light.

At times it has been like a mini building site, as Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman make room to haul the club into the modern era.

When you consider the failings that defined the previous decade, the sound of solid foundations being built is almost as welcome as that roar that greeted the first-half revival against Lincoln City.

And though the progress has undeniably been slow, the last couple of weeks has seen Johnson's squad take on something of a stronger look.

Aiden McGeady and Luke O'Nien have added quality and experience to a squad that looked light, while Alex Pritchard brings versatility and quality in the forward areas.

There is a core of a strong League One side there, when factor in the return of Elliot Embleton and the other younger players who will be better for the experience of another season at senior level.

The gaps, though, are obvious.

Denver Hume's contract negotiations have dragged on longer than anyone would have imagined and that is far from ideal as Johnson tries to begin the process of bedding in his philosophy over the crucial pre-season period.

At centre-back there are currently two experienced campaigners who will have a part to play, but the absence of Dion Sanderson means there is a clear shortage of athleticism and ball-carrying ability.

As the Black Cats look to accelerate their move to a more dynamic, attacking style of play, that crack in the current foundations is of course a concern.

Elsewhere, they remain surely one central midfielder short and the uncertainty over Will Grigg's future means they could yet end up looking light there, too.

There are plenty of good reasons for this.

The impact of COVID-19 undeniably slowed the market to begin with, while the Euros have seen the kind of young players the Black Cats might target on loan start pre-season with their parent clubs.

It cannot be stated enough, either, just how much work there was to be done in rebuilding the recruitment department from what went before.That is not, and was never going to be, an overnight process.

What has also become clear is the determination to stick the plan put in place, particularly when it comes to the budget and Louis-Dreyfus' desire to start moving the club towards sustainability. Perhaps that has surprised many in the game, who may have thought a new owner would have brought free spending in search of instant success.

With some youngsters promoted and some key contracts secured, looking at the squad underlines that is actually only one or two breakthroughs away from being in a decent place.

It's understandable, though, that the impasse has led to some restlessness.

Sunderland fans have been patient and supportive of the new regime, and even now that remains broadly the case.

Communication, though, has been sparse.

The broad strokes of what to expect have been effectively and clearly put across: the promotion of youth talent, an end to reckless spending.

Structured dialogue with supporter groups has made a welcome and overdue return, but the detail has never really been discussed and given the size of his remit at the club,

Sporting Director Speakman has engaged in little external dialogue.

While the footballing structure of the club has been modernised, engagement in the media has still been left entirely to Johnson. On matters such as contracts, he is being asked questions really beyond his remit and so there have been times when there has been precious little information in public on key issues.

COVID-19 has not helped, making dialogue and engagement harder in a very obvious way.

Behind the scenes, the message has consistently been that there are many plates spinning and that by the end of the window the squad will have a very different look to last season.

In additions such as Pritchard last week and Ross Stewart in January, the evidence is there that there is a willingness to invest when the right opportunity arises.

This is a new era at Sunderland, but the closing weeks of this crucial window perhaps represent the first real test.

After what came before, you can understand why supporters are eager for answers to calm their nerves.

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