When casting an eye over the favourites in League One, it’s likely Sunderland will be at the top of most lists.
The Black Cats are a huge name in English football and are facing only their third season outside the top two divisions in their history. The fact a double Wembley appearance was classed as a disappointment last season goes some way to underlining the expectation around the club.
That said, twelve months prior, as Chris Coleman was leading them out of the second-tier at the first time of asking, albeit the wrong way, and Shrewsbury were suffering double heartbreak of the same kind. Few Salop followers would have called that a successful season.
Much of the ‘favourite’ tag comes from simply being Sunderland, a club with a stadium that is by the far the most impressive in the division, with international players amongst their ranks and a Netflix documentary all about them. You just don’t get that at Accrington Stanley and it leads contemporary media to believe they should bounce up this season.
Those who scratch the surface and care to look a little deeper might not agree. The club is in turmoil, not Bolton-style ‘will we be here in two weeks’ turmoil, but enough to derail what could be a promotion push. Before we even touch on new faces, it’s prudent to set the scene.
Stuart Donald and the current board gambled last season. Financially, they are not the behemoth their status suggests and even spending £4m on Will Grigg wasn’t as much a show of strength as a desperate roll of a dice seemingly loaded against them. Having discovered a gem in their youth ranks in Josh Maja, they saw him leave for a paltry fee after refusing to sign a new deal. Their £1m signing of the summer, Charlie Wyke, never hit fitness or form and Grigg was a wild gamble on a top two place. They placed all their money on red and it came up black time and again.
Supporters are hoping to see attacking players join the club, but Jack Ross has suggested that it’s one in, one out. Right now, nobody appears to be going out. That leaves the weight of creative expectation on the shoulders of Aiden McGeady again. He’s on the comeback trail after playing through the pain barrier in the futile attempt to claim automatic promotion despite having a broken foot. Another gamble that didn’t pay off, with consequences being suffered right now.
It’s not all doom and gloom of course. Jordan Willis is a fine capture but with Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan you have to question the motive behind the move. Conor McLaughlin is a direct replacement for the outgoing Reece James, although James was very much back up for Luke O’Nien. If the first of the summer recruits is going to start it’s likely to spell bad news for popular O’Nien, a hard-working versatility man formerly with Wycombe. The final transfer saw Lee Burge coming in to challenge Jon McLaughlin. The Scot was Player of the Year last season and Burge is likely to see a lot of Jack Ross as they sit together watching matches.
At the time of writing that’s the extent of their transfer business. It has to be argued that bringing in three players who’ll spend most of their time in the defensive half seems to be largely missing the point. The Black Cats looked bereft of ideas in their two play-off semi-final matches with Portsmouth, only Chris Maguire’s goal separated the two sides and there is a certain similarity between Pompey and Ross’ Sunderland. Both play 4-2-3-1, both lacked the cutting edge from the attacking element last season and both are still in League One because of it.
It was clear by McGeady’s selection after he broke his foot that Lynden Gooch wasn’t regarded as a potent attacking threat. Fans are not on George Honeyman’s side either. He played wearing the number ten, in the ten role, but has become something of a pariah of late. It’s a shame for the academy graduate, he’s a player who came out of the Netflix fiasco looking like a grounded, honest lad with Sunderland in his heart, but he isn’t the answer to their attacking questions.
In an ideal world, Sunderland would be looking to bring someone in with a bit of flair and lower league experience to add balance to that front three. CJ Hamilton or Bruno Andrade both did well in the division below, but at around £500,00 the bidding would seem too rich. That’s in direct contrast to their billing as favourites, they don’t have the money to spend whereas the likes of Rotherham do.
There is a question over the two holding midfielders as well. Lee Cattermole has gone, a decision that seems to have been unpopular but essential given his wage. Grant Leadbitter did well after signing but he’s never going to carry the ball forward or fluidly step into a 4-1-4-1 when they’re attacking. Dylan McGeouch should be much better than he showed last season but there are even question marks over his future.
So, what are the positives? The academy is still churning out quality players who would be knocking on the first team door of 75% of the division. A lot might be expected of Elliot Embleton, he had a great spell on loan with Grimsby and might be an answer to the central midfield question, whether that’s alongside Leadbitter adding extra legs, or further forward in the middle of the three. Denver Hume continues to develop at a good rate and Bali Mumba must be close to regular football, despite being left at home with the Under 23s during the recent Portugal tour.
There is also Max Power, a player we think they could get much more from. Power tended to play as part of the two in front of the defence, but could also play in the three ahead of that anchor. He endured a tough time after signing, picking up red cards and suspensions that set him back but there is more to come from him. He was thought to be out until the end of the season, but coming off the bench in the recent 1-0 defeat to Belenenses gave fans hope he’s closer than they think.
The main factors that will dictate this season are threefold. Firstly, Grigg and Wyke. One of those has got to start scoring goals, but they won’t do that without chances. Neither will play the lone striker role and create their own openings, they need adequate support and much of Grigg’s struggles came down to a lack of service as much as his alleged injury woe. As for Wyke, it’s a big season for him. He’s done it before at this level and of the two, he’s perhaps more suited to the 4-2-3-1 formation but again it relies on the players behind him.
The second factor is Jack Ross. He might be in charge of arguably the biggest side in the third-tier, but his previous experience is limited to Alloa and St Mirren. He’s progressed through the ranks, but is winning the Scottish Championship adequate experience to step into a job this big? He made some naive decisions last season, the often defensive approach even at home, relying heavily on one or two players and not making the most of strong squad. They’ll be weaker this time around, but there are 23 other sides in the division who would be happy with the quality Sunderland have amongst their own ranks.
Finally, events off the field will underpin everything. If the investment comes in before the transfer window closes, they’ll strengthen and perhaps do better. However, having spent £5m on two strikers, spending big on a third might suggest the club haven’t learnt from their recent experiences and are still playing a dangerous game when it comes to debt and spending.
This pre-season has seen fewer new faces than the fans would like, more players leaving then they expected and injury concerns before a ball had been kicked. Bali Mumba, a great hope for the supporters, has been left with the Under 23s and a tour of Portugal brought no goals, a 1-0 defeat against Belenenses and a 0-0 draw with Benfica’s B side. The proposed takeover didn’t happen, the fans have largely been left in the dark and with under two weeks to go until the big kick off, Sunderland are as ill-prepared as all but two sides in the third tier.
They might be favourites, their squad might be the strongest on paper in the division, but the Black Cats have a way to go yet to convince their own supporters that they’re worthy of the billing they’re receiving.