From takeovers to transfers to contracts: The seven storylines set to define Sunderland's season
The 2020/21 season is finally nearing.
Sunderland’s League One schedule will be published on Friday morning, while they will discover their first opponents of the season when the Carabao Cup first round draw takes place on Tuesday morning, followed later in the day by the EFL Trophy group stage draw.
It will be a critical campaign for the Black Cats, both on and off the pitch.
In his weekly column, Phil Smith takes a look at the storylines that will define the campaign...
A(nother) takeover deadline
After such a long break without competitive football, the dawn of the League One season September 12th will be all the more eagerly anticipated.
In the uncertain world of Sunderland AFC, however, that date has added significance.
Supporters will expect more clarity on the ownership of the club, given that it was reported last month that a deal with a party in a period of exclusivity would be concluded by this date.
Little information has emerged since, and indeed there has been no on-record comment from a senior figure since Stewart Donald’s resignation as chairman a month ago.
The uncertainty has been heightened by the very public claims made by William Storey, only serving to underline the unease on Wearside.
The club has little chance of real progression without a long-term plan and absolute clarity at boardroom level.
By the time the season begins, we should have a better idea as to where things stand and if we do not, fans will rightly demand it.
Yet more uncertainty and yet another disappointing conclusion will damage the mood significantly.
Who are Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland?
Are they the side that produced a strong run of form after Christmas, at one stage looking a genuine contender for automatic promotion?
Or are they the side that dipped considerably before lockdown, producing a run of results and performances reminiscent of the woeful months that followed the departure of Jack Ross?
Parkinson wants five more additions but is now back, by and large, to the group that formed the core XI of his preferred 3-4-3 shape.
Whether they can recapture the form they showed at the start of 2020 will set the tone for the campaign.
Last season, a sluggish but far from disastrous start to the campaign saw pressure rise overwhelmingly on Ross.
This time around, the lower profile of the current board means there have been no bold claims about titles and points targets, but promotion has never been more important and so many will be looking for a fast start.
Can Sunderland get the goals they need to go up?
Sunderland’s search for more striking firepower for the new campaign is yet to yield a positive result, and has been made even harder still by the new salary cap rules that significantly affect the wages the club can offer to potential targets.
It’s a major concern for the fanbase, given that the Black Cats have lacked a dependable goalscorer since Josh Maja’s departure in January 2019.
Will Grigg’s future remains uncertain and though Charlie Wyke established himself as an integral part of Parkinson’s first-choice XI, there remain concerns both about the ruthlessness of the side’s finishing, and their ability to create chances regularly through a contest.
If Sunderland are to compete for the top two, both will need addressing.
Will promising youngsters get a proper opportunity to shine?
This feels like a make or break season for Elliot Embleton, who was desperately unlucky with injuries during the last campaign.
Parkinson regularly said that he felt the talented youngster had much to offer and it will be interesting to see how many opportunities he gets in a 3-4-3 system that looks perfect for his creative talents.
Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire will rightly be the players in possession of those number ten positions but it is going to be a long and punishing campaign.
Embleton needs minutes and if he doesn’t get them, there will be plenty of teams prepared to offer just that when his contract expires.
Jack Diamond is still a player with time on his side but is being assessed in pre-season as to whether he will be part of Parkinson’s plans in the immediate future.
It will also be very interesting to see how Parkinson’s necessary search for cover and competition at left-back affects Denver Hume’s encouraging development.
The contract talks looming on the horizon
Contract negotiations have been a major source of frustration on Wearside during Madrox’s first two years in charge.
Josh Maja and Jon McLaughlin, arguably the club’s best two players of the League One era so far, both left after a frustrating impasse and for a fraction of their value.
Much of Sunderland’s current squad is out of contract next summer and that makes sense given that their futures will largely depend on how Sunderland’s promotion push fares.
There are some key assets, however, that will need protecting.
The salary cap complicates matters as any new contract will be counted in full, but there will be many clubs tracking the progress of Jordan Willis and Luke O’Nien.
Good campaigns for Denver Hume and Elliot Embleton will bring them into that category, too.
The departure of Richard Hill means the way Sunderland handle contract talks will change, and it is imperative improvements to prevent a repeat of recent mistakes.
Will McLaughlin’s departure cost Sunderland?
Unsurprisingly, McLaughlin has quickly proven his worth at Rangers, keeping clean sheets in each of this three appearances thus far.
Parkinson remains in the market as he looks to find competition for Lee Burge, who looks set as it stands for a major opportunity to stake his claim at the beginning of the season.
Burge was selected in Parkinson’s first game last season, with McLaughlin struggling for form as debate over his future continued.
The former Coventry City goalkeeper did little wrong and had already impressed in his cup appearances before then. The Scot, though, bounced back strongly and finished the campaign firmly restablished as first choice.
If Sunderland are to take the next step, they will need Burge to provide a similarly steadying presence in their own box.
Will there be signs of green shoots in the Academy set-up?
Sunderland should announce a new academy manager before the start of the new season and as outlined in our in-depth series, it is an appointment that many in the game see as something of a litmus test as to how serious the club are about rebuilding the U18 and U23 sides.
Both are in need of urgent investment and attention, even after the club announced the arrivals of Sam Wilding, Bobby Beaumont and Vinnie Steels.
A huge amount of damage has been done by the drain of talent in the last two-and-a-half years, and will take many years to put right.
The club, however, have made clear that the new appointment is seen as the first step in putting that right and this will be judged over the course of the coming campaign.