Phil Smith: Tough opening fixtures underline the need for rapid progress at Sunderland

Bent will return to the Stadium of Light on the opening night of the season
Bent will return to the Stadium of Light on the opening night of the season
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David Moyes sat, with a look of mild trepidation, as he pondered the challenge that would await Sunderland in the Championship.

The Scot was adamant that Sunderland would win more games in the second tier, pointing to an emerging group of younger players who he thought would thrive. Spirits have certainly been lifted by the sight of Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore going through their paces in Portugal this week.

What troubled him was the level of uncertainty elsewhere at the club, and the vast amount of overhaul that would have to take place before the Black Cats would be ready for the new season.

He was keen to point out that Sunderland could have to play eight games before the transfer window closed, not enough to spark a promotion charge but certainly enough to leave one in tatters.

As it turns out the Black Cats only have six, but the five League games pose immense challenges.

Derby County, who have disappointed in recent seasons but are moving fast to strengthen their faulty defence under the impressive Gary Rowett. At the other end they will pose plenty of problems. Norwich City and Sheffield Wednesday, the latter certain to challenge.

Then Leeds United at home and Barnsley away, both looking to build on excellent campaigns last time out.

It underlines the need for rapid progress in the coming weeks, to settle the ownership issue and find a manager to take charge. There is time but it will soon run out.

That Derby game in particular brings back one of the better days for Sunderland in the 21st century. Roy Keane's first game, a first half deficit turned around by Chris Brown and Ross Wallace. Lift-off for the magic carpet journey.

The Black Cats turned around a poor start that season (floundering against far weaker opponents then) but they will know it would be a much more difficult task this time around.

In a division where time is a luxury rarely granted, the consequences of a slow start amid uncertainty in the squad and beyond will be even more damaging than last season.

Nevertheless, the release of the fixture list has inevitably been met with a flutter of excitement. More famous away days in the offing, a first trip to Burton, a first trip in this decade to some of the famous grounds of yesteryear.

To begin the season on home turf, under the lights, is also a welcome relief. The Black Cats have started five of the last six seasons away from the Stadium of Light and it cannot have helped their abysmal record in the opening two months of the season.

Morale may be low but it will not take much to create an intimidating and rousing atmosphere for that opening game.

The potential for an exhilarating season is there, if the six weeks between now and Derby County's arrival is used wisely and constructively.