Sunderland Season Preview: the re-build

Sunderland’s policy has long been to sign old players in an inflated January market and change manager frequently. They always just about stayed up with that approach, but always with the sense that they were treading water. Last season, those years of short-term thinking caught up with the Black Cats, as supporter Michael Oates – from the excellent A Football Education – discusses.

I think last season was a culmination of four or five previous years of financial mismanagement, which resulted in an inevitable relegation. Looking back towards the sacking of Martin O’Neill and the subsequent poor appointments since has resulted in a vicious circle for SAFC. The proverbial shot in the arm resulted in us staying up under Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Big Sam, who all performed heroics in preserving our top flight status, so I think it’s more than fair to say that we’ve been riding our luck significantly in the Premier League. We’ve recruited poorly, wasting millions in the process, either on players who weren’t good enough, or simply came here for their own financial reasons. Our squads at any given time in the past five seasons have been full of players signed by previous managers who are not necessarily going to fit in with the new man’s way of thinking. Even now we find ourselves in the same position. The club have applied sticking plasters to gaping wounds for too long now and we’ve ultimately paid the price. I wasn’t a fan of David Moyes, his personality and relentless negativity, but he was dealt an unfair hand last season and had to bring in players on such a limited budget; it was almost an impossibility to survive once again. Owner Ellis Short quite simply had to tighten the purse-strings; the club does not have a bottomless pit of money to spend on players. Ultimately, a lot of our fans blame him and the poor decisions he’s made for where the club currently finds itself.

Simon Grayson has been appointed manager on a three-year deal. What do you make of the work he did at Preston?

I think the fact that Simon Grayson was boss at Preston for four and a half years, the longest in the Championship I believe, speaks for itself. It’s notoriously difficult to remain in a managerial job for that length of time in the modern game. He steadied the ship at Preston and ultimately got them promoted back to the second tier, and kept them there. Without being disrespectful in any way, I think an 11th place finish for North End is extremely admirable, and I have since read that a lot of their supporters were understandably sad to see Grayson go. He’s done well wherever he’s been, particularly at Leeds in similar financial circumstances to what he’s finding here at Sunderland. He knows the division and what is required for a 46 game slog. He isn’t the stellar name that some of our fans would have been hoping for but he ticks a lot of boxes for me. The key thing is to give him time. He’s already endeared himself to our supporters by saying the right things, telling us how he wants to play and the types of players he wants to recruit. I think it could turn out to be a shrewd appointment by SAFC.

Jermain Defoe has left for Bournemouth this summer. Can James Vaughan replace his poaching instincts?

I’m not sure there are many players that can replace Jermain Defoe and what he contributed in his time here, on and off the pitch. He’s became a true legend up here, and I don’t say that lightly. The fans love him and I think the club got under his skin. We will miss his predatory instincts, without a doubt. Grayson is looking for a certain type of player, and having worked with James Vaughan previously, he knows what he’s getting. He’s got a slightly concerning injury record but played plenty of games last season for Bury, notching 24 league goals, so hopefully we can keep him fit with a good supply line around him. He said himself he’s ready to work hard and is up for the challenge here. It is a case of time, perhaps more so with a striker, but as soon as that first league goal comes, I’m sure he’ll be fine in a Sunderland shirt.

Another key man leaving is Jordan Pickford to Everton, while Vito Mannone appears confidence hit. Is there an opportunity for goalkeeper Mika Dominguez to worm his way into Grayson’s plans?

I think everyone connected with SAFC in recent years has known what a special talent we had with Jordan Pickford. The club managed him well; the numerous loans he’s had at different levels of the league ladder gave him the experience to be able to perform in the Premier League. The transition was as easy as they come, and once he started to play for us regularly, it was a case of when not if, he’d be moving on. Jordan will be a massive miss, and I believe he will go on to be England’s number one goalkeeper in the coming years. Having said that, Pickford’s departure does indeed present itself with opportunities for other goalkeepers. Vito Mannone divides opinion among our supporters, and there has been talk for some time of a move back to his native Italy. He stated in the media recently that he hasn’t spoken to Grayson about his current situation, and is relaxed about it, which raises more questions than it answers. We haven’t seen much of Mika in his time here, as he hasn’t played a first team game since joining last season, and will no doubt be using pre-season to press his own claims for the number one shirt. As will promising young Polish keeper Max Stryjek, who is certainly worthy of a mention.

Tyias Browning arrives with less than complimentary reviews from Preston fans while Brendan Galloway has only played 30 club games in his career. How do the Everton loanees affect your full-back areas?

The full-back areas certainly need addressing, as does the whole back line if I’m being totally honest. At right-back we’ve Billy Jones, Donald Love and Adam Matthews on the books, none of which have convinced in their time here. Bryan Oviedo remained our only left-sided defender until Galloway was signed by Grayson. At only 21 years of age, perhaps playing in 30 games can be seen as a positive thing? They’re here to play, they’re both young pros, who can operate in more than one defensive position and, like any player, will need time to bed in here. The manager has said he will set up with a variety of systems and shapes this season, and he sees these two youngsters as players that can slot in to that way of thinking. Playing regularly is not something either of them has done so far in their fledgling careers, so it will be interesting to see how they fair if they are indeed thrown in at the deep end come August.

John O’Shea is 36, Paddy McNair is injured, Lamine Kone seemingly doesn’t want to be at the club and Papy Djilobodji unimpressed last year. Surely a centre-back is badly needed?

Unquestionably, one if not two centre-backs are required to strengthen our defence. Lamine Kone was an absolute revelation when he first arrived here. He was combative, strong, no nonsense and became an instant hit with our supporters. He even chipped in with a couple of goals from set-pieces as we survived the drop under Big Sam. For £5m we looked to have bagged a bargain. Then it all turned sour. The contract disputes, the drop in work rate, the poor attitude and even rumours of feigning injury in order to miss matches. He wanted to leave for Everton last summer; SAFC rebuffed their advances and gave Kone a new deal with massively improved terms. We thought a line had been drawn under the whole saga, but he had such a poor season that it was abundantly clear that he didn’t want to be here any longer. I’d be massively shocked if the club hung onto him, and given Grayson’s comments about our defensive display in the 3-0 reverse at St Johnstone last week our supporters didn’t need to think twice when thinking about who he was referring to. We’ve had problems at centre-back for a number of seasons now, and we still keep falling back on John O’Shea as a safety net. Djilobodji has been a big disappointment, and if we can somehow find a buyer, he’ll be out of the door too. At the time of writing, some media outlets are reporting we’ve made an approach for Villa’s Tommy Elphick, so that’s one to keep tabs on. All areas of the defence need addressing as the same problems from last season seem to have carried over into pre-season.

You’ve got a lot of tough tacklers like Lee Cattermole, Didier Ndong and Jack Rodwell. Are you expecting a central midfield of grit more than guile?

I think to be successful in The Championship, you need players of variety, especially in midfield areas. I like what I saw from Ndong last season. The more games he played, the better he got, and he’ll be a real asset for us this year. I think the likes of Darron Gibson and Rodwell still have a lot to prove to the Wearside faithful; surely we’ll see an improvement in their performances after dropping down a league. Everyone knows what Lee Cattermole brings to the side, and I think promising youngster Lynden Gooch will play a bigger role for us this season too. Perhaps the addition of a more attack-minded number ten could be an option, especially as we are desperate to add goals from midfield to our makeup. Maybe even Wahbi Khazri could slot in there, who knows? Having said that, addressing other areas remain the priority at the moment.

Grayson got the best out of Aiden McGeady at Preston. If Wahbi Khazri can rediscover his 15/16 form, will you have a bit of quality out wide?

I’m a massive Khazri fan. I think he brings guile and craft to our team. The side was craving quality massively last season; the likes of Januzaj and Borini just weren’t performing, yet Khazri bizarrely still found himself on the sidelines; something that Moyes never really fully addressed in his time here. His stock remains high amongst our supporters and if we can keep him for a season in the second tier, then we have a real asset at our disposal. He’s started well in pre-season, but whether that is to engineer a move away from SAFC remains to be seen. I think the same can be said of Jeremain Lens; although it is much more likely that he will move on before the window closes this summer. As for McGeady, he’s a player that I’ve always rated, and at £250k, he could prove to be a real bargain. Grayson got the best out of him at Preston last season and I think McGeady is a player that, at this level, can excite our fans. Khazri, McGeady and young Duncan Watmore at our disposal in wide areas would certainly bode well for SAFC.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

Historically it has always been a hugely competitive league, and with the uncertainty surrounding SAFC at the end of last season, it even entered my mind that we might struggle at the bottom end of the league in our first season back! It has happened previously where some clubs have dropped into League One after relegation from the Premier League. I’m a tad more optimistic now than I was a few weeks ago now that we have appointed Simon Grayson and started the ball rolling in terms of signing players. I think realistically there are cases to be made for a dozen teams to chase those hallowed top six spots. Villa are flexing their muscles, as are Wolves, and the likes of Boro, Derby, Fulham, Sheff Wed, Hull and Norwich will all have aspirations to clinch promotion. A dark horse? I think Sheffield United could be a team to watch this season.

Where will you finish?

That is the Million Dollar question isn’t it? It’s extremely difficult to say at this stage. We’ve got a limited budget, and we need to put our faith and trust in Simon Grayson to recruit well. He certainly knows the type of players he wants and the areas that need strengthening. I think a push at the play-offs is a realistic aim, I don’t think we can expect too much more than that. Patience once again will be key. I think this season could be one of stability and transition for us, hopefully! We just want to see hard work and 100% commitment from our players. We need to feel like we have a team to be proud of once again. After everything that we have seen in the past few seasons, it certainly won’t be a dull campaign, that’s for sure!

The Football Lab’s Verdict

After the horrors of last season, Sunderland face a tough season ahead and the midfield performances of Ndong and McGeady will be key. Grayson may not have the tactical flexibility to take the Black Cats up from this league, but he will instil effort and discipline – the first step of a two-stage process. 11th