Sunderland's 2020 in review: Ownership saga, academy concerns, key roles to fill and Will Grigg's goalscoring woe
It’s never dull, is it?
Supporters on Wearside are well-accustomed to the rollercoaster ride that is following Sunderland AFC, and 2020 is a year that brought more steep drops than inclines.
But what were the main talking points among supporters over the last 12 months? We take a look back at the year that was at the Stadium of Light...
This was the story that dominated the year.
2020 began with Stewart Donald pledging to sell the club after the fan-led #DonaldOut protests, but ownership change was not forthcoming before the League One season was curtailed in the middle of the year.
With the Black Cats consigned to a third season in the third tier, Donald’s asking price - which he publicly stated as £37.6million - was the subject of much debate.
But it didn’t seem to deter buyers. Sammy Yu, Mark Campbell, William Storey and Matthew Pauls were all, at one point or another, thought to have been weighing-up or trying to assemble bids for Sunderland over the course of the last 12 months.
And then along came Kyril Louis-Dreyfus - and it is he who is to take a majority stake in the club in the near future, the club confirming the plan in a statement on Christmas Eve, an early Christmas present to the club’s long-suffering supporters.
The EFL are now doing their checks and there are hopes it will be concluded by the middle of January. At last.
Sunderland fans have certainly been waiting long enough.
And fans will wait with bated to breath to see if that deal will bring the change that the club needs as we move into 2021.
This has been a talking point that has gone hand-in-hand with concerns over the ownership of the club.
A summer of upheaval left Sunderland without staff in a number of key roles.
Academy manager Paul Reid and recruitment chiefs Tony Coton and Richard Hill departed and are yet to be replaced - although the club were set to kick-off their search for a head of player recruitment early in December.
The appointment of Jim Rodwell as chief executive provided some much-needed leadership on Wearside, but it wasn’t until the end of the year when Sunderland really started to put a solid structure in place.
Kristjaan Speakman’s arrival as sporting director is set to herald a new set-up behind the scenes at the Academy of Light and there are hopes that this could provide the structure that the Black Cats have long craved.
There are still a number of key roles to be filled, though, and these will need to be sorted as a priority in 2021.
Another intertwined concern was that of the academy.
The summer saw Joe Hugill, Logan Pye and Bali Mumba all depart for six-figure fees and concerns mounted over the fact that even more promising youngsters were leaving Sunderland - seemingly with little to no fight from the club’s point of view.
Things have improved slightly on this front, and the fact the Black Cats have tied Adam Richardson and Dan Neil to new long-term deals suggests a concerted effort to ensure that youngsters are retained.
Concerns over the academy have not fully disappeared as of yet, but there is optimism heading into 2021 that the club’s conveyor belt of talent could once again become integral to the future of Sunderland.
A big talking point for much of the year, particularly towards the end of Phil Parkinson’s reign, was the club’s tactical style.
While Parkinson’s 3-4-3 yielded some promising results early in 2020, it became rather predictable as the year wore on - and it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t much in the way of a back-up plan.
Things have markedly improved in the early weeks of Johnson’s reign, with Sunderland’s more front-footed style producing some strong results and performances.
But many will point to the fact that things were equally as promising at times under Parkinson, and Johnson has yet to have been forced into playing a Plan B.
Only then will we know if Sunderland have seriously improved on a tactical front.
Another hot-button issue under Parkinson was the club’s use of substitutions - or, indeed, the lack of them.
It was perceived by many that the Black Cats would often wait too late to make switches and as such didn’t give players a chance to make a serious impact on the game.
With League One clubs now able to utilise up to five changes, there is the chance for Sunderland to rotate more personnel if the need requires.
That could become a useful weapon as we head into 2021 and the Wearsiders look to continue climbing the table.
GOALS AND GRIGG
For the vast majority of the year, concerns have been raised over Sunderland’s lack of a cutting edge in the final third.
Prior to the appointment of Johnson, Sunderland hadn’t scored more than twice in a league game during the 2020-21 season and never looked like blowing a team away.
Charlie Wyke chipped in with his share of goals but Will Grigg - the big money signing of 2019 - is still yet to really catch fire on Wearside.
But under Johnson, goals don’t look like they’ll be in short supply.
Time will be the judge of that, but this is one talking point that will hopefully be well and truly left behind in 2020.