Sunderland AFC seemingly enter their fourth season in the third tier of English football, the lowest they have ever been as a club, more unsure than ever on the squad’s capabilities this season.
Lee Johnson’s Black Cats ended their six-game pre-season run undefeated with a 2-1 win over newly-promoted Hull City, with Will Grigg scoring the winning goal, his first for the club since 2019.
The fans of this dormant giant will always expect promotion, and under the ownership of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Johnson’s management, there has been steady progress towards that goal. There must be quiet confidence in success amongst the club’s hierarchy, but this club knows already how tough the division is.
They came agonizingly close once again to completing that feat last year, narrowly losing out 3-2 on aggregate in the play-off semi-finals once again, the Sunderland fans were resigned to building themselves back up again for another challenging ride in the third tier.
Under Louis-Dreyfus’ careful stewardship this pre-season, in his first full summer transfer window as the owner, the Wearside club have shied away from overspending as the new man in charge opts for a more sustainable future for the club.
This slower, more considered approach to transfers has understandably brought some restlessness amongst the Sunderland fans, who remember their beloved at much loftier heights once upon a time.
With that said, the newly appointed Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman and Head of Recruitment Stuart Harvey have made some exciting additions to the squad, which will undoubtedly catch the eye of the club’s nearest competition.
Attacking-midfielder Alex Pritchard was the first to arrive – he has had good and bad years in equal measure over the last decade. However, he brings excellent experience and dynamism to Sunderland’s forward line.
31-year-old midfielder Corry Evans also joined the Black Cats with plenty of experience at this level after helping Blackburn Rovers to promotion from League One three years ago.
Another exciting addition is Manchester City loanee Callum Doyle; the 17-year-old defender arrives with high expectations with squad light on numbers in his area of the pitch. However, he comes with rave reviews and has enjoyed a sensational pre-season, helping the team remain undefeated throughout.
Quality over depth?
As well as an unexpectedly small number of new arrivals, there has been a culling of last season’s squad. Nine first-teamers, five of which started in the second leg of the semi-final against Lincoln City, have left.
The team desperately need full-backs that are fully committed to that position, and with their 31-goal striker Charlie Wyke now at fellow League One outfit Wigan Athletic, there have been concerns over a lack of depth in that area too.
They could give the once prolific Grigg another shot. However, highly-rated Sheffield United striker Daniel Jebbison was in attendance on Friday night, and the club are reportedly keen on pushing through a loan deal for the 18-year-old. Aiden O’Brien and Ross Stewart are other options to lead the line for Sunderland in Wyke’s absence.
In the wide areas, Johnson’s side already boasts plenty of talent in Jack Diamond, Lynden Gooch, Aiden McGeady, and the returning loanee Elliot Embleton, who helped Blackpool to promotion back to the Championship last season.
Overall, Sunderland still hold some of the best players in the division, particularly in attack. However, their cut-throat recruitment policy has left them looking light in some positions in the midfield and defence.
Anything could happen
This season could be a new dawn for the Wearsiders; however, they are not the only so-called big hitters in the league looking to reboot and kick start a rise to former glory.
Wigan and Ipswich Town are both also under new ownership and have been busy in the transfer market. Ipswich have already secured Rekeem Harper, a 21-year-old midfielder from West Bromwich Albion and striker Conor Chaplin from Barnsley, amongst eight other new arrivals.
Additionally, there are eight former Premier League sides in a packed-out League One this year. However, Ipswich, Wigan, Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth, AFC Wimbledon, Bolton Wanderers, Sheffield Wednesday, and Sunderland illustrate how hard it will be to get out.
The Black Cats have found getting out of this division very difficult and this season will be no different; although, under new guidance, there is at least a plan for success and how it will be achieved – whether it will come this campaign remains to be seen.
It’s taken other clubs of similar stature time to find their feet after falling to League One. Some have even slid further down, but the club must know the fans will not continue to attend in raptures the longer their position in the football pyramid stands still.