2020/21 Preview – Sunderland

The new league season is upon us, host of Express FM’s Football Hour and Pompey Live pundit Jake Smith takes a look at Sunderland as part of his club-by-club preview.

Intro: The Black Cats of Sunderland have gone through some torrid times of late. In 2017, after ten seasons in the top-flight, the club were relegated down to the Championship having picked up just 24 points from 38 games.

Amazingly, they were relegated again the following season, falling straight down to League One in 2018 having been tipped to fight for automatic promotion at the start of the campaign. Sunderland had a squad good enough to compete, with players such as Lee Cattermole, Aiden McGeady and Josh Maja all signed up for the fight, however uncertainty amongst the board and a declining relationship with the fans all boiled up to play a part in the club’s double-relegation.

Sunderland AFC as they are now known were formed 141-years ago in 1879 as Sunderland and District Teachers and have won a total of six top-flight titles, two FA Cups and one FA Charity Shield. The Black Cats are among a handful of sleeping giants bidding to climb out of League One in 2020/21.

The Stadium of Light has been the home of Sunderland since 1997, when the club moved away from their beloved Roker Park just a few blocks away.

The club’s first ever strip was an all-Navy number, which was used for four years between 1880 and 1884, in the days when trousers were worn as opposed to shorts. Red and white stripes have been sported every season since 1887, following three years of kits which featured a half white/half red shirt.

1987/88 was the last time Sunderland played football in the third-tier before their 2018 relegation – that season they bounced straight back up to Division 2 having accrued 93 points from 42 games, winning the title.

Home Ground: Stadium of Light, Sunderland (Tyne and Wear), 340 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 48,707

2019/20 Table Position: 8th (League One) – 59 points after 36 games with an average of 1.64 points per-game.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: Sunderland Wins: 39 – Draws: 35 – Portsmouth Wins: 35

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Portsmouth 2-0 Sunderland, 1st February 2020, League One

2020/21 Fixture Dates:

Saturday 14th October, 2020 – Stadium of Light

Tuesday 9th March, 2021 – Fratton Park

Manager: The Black Cats have an experienced Football League boss in charge of their first-team – 52-year-old Phil Parkinson accepted a two-and-a-half-year contract on Wearside in October 2019 and has since overseen 32 competitive games in charge.

Parkinson, who was once a trainee player at Southampton, made his Football League debut with Bury in 1988 having failed to feature even once for the team just down the M27.

After four years at Gigg Lane, the Chorley-born midfielder made the switch to Reading, where he made almost 400 appearances in all competitions over an 11-year timeframe. He retired from playing in 2003 and wasted no time in finding a job in management, taking control of Colchester United later that same year.

Hull City, Charlton Athletic and Bradford City are all clubs in which Parkinson has represented as manager, with Bolton Wanderers the most recent side to employ the gaffer, who is yet to add a Football League promotion to his CV.

One To Watch: 18-year-old central-midfielder Daniel Neil is looking set to make his breakthrough this season.

Neil, whose squad number is 24, came through the ranks as a youth player at the Academy of Light in the North East and was promoted to the senior team for the first time in 2018, making his debut for the club at the age of 16 against Morecambe in the EFL Trophy.

Not much else is known about the young prospect, who has since failed to make a first-team appearance for the Black Cats, instead featuring for the Under-23s in Premier League 2.

Featured Sunderland supporter Rich Speight, who currently resides in Snowdonia, North Wales, described Neil as: “A creative midfielder with great technique and a lovely weight of passing”.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): Australian centre-back Bailey Wright has been flagged by supporters as the club’s signing of the summer.

The 28-year-old, who was born in Melbourne, featured five times for the Black Cats toward the end of last season, having moved to the Stadium of Light on a six-month loan deal from Bristol City.

He made his move permanent on August the 2nd, penning a two-year deal at the club after leaving Ashton Gate as a free-agent.

The imposing figure, who measures up at 6 feet tall, was regularly tipped to have a promising career in the game as a youngster, playing in the youth teams of Australian clubs Langwarrin, Mornington and Dandenong Thunder before spending two years at the Football Federation Victoria National Training Centre, a program set up specifically to aid the development of Victorian youth players.

Wright travelled to England in 2009, when he signed a two-year scholarship deal with Preston North End, for whom he ended up featuring 179 times competitively between 2010 and 2017.

At Sunderland, the defender will be handed the No. 5 shirt.

Season Expectation: The bare minimum requirement of Sunderland this season is to achieve a Play-Off position, however Phil Parkinson needs to take advantage of the fact that the three sides coming down from the Championship this season will all be unsettled due to problems off the pitch.

The Black Cats head into their third consecutive League One season, having lost in the Play-Off Final in their first attempt to regain promotion to the Championship and missed out completely last time out after unweighted points-per-game was put into effect.

Whether the phrase means anything to you or not, the reality is that Sunderland are too big for this division and should be competing, with the budget they have, for a place in the Automatics.

My Predicted Finish: 1st (C)

Shedding Light on Sunderland – Promotion or Bust for Parkinson

Exiled Black Cats supporter Rich Speight, who has been involved with the ‘Roker Report’ podcast for around 12 months now, is seeking two simple changes at the club this season – a new owner and some goals. Rich was quoted in saying: “The ownership issue has rumbled on for over a year and our two main strikers, Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke, were brought in for a combined transfer fee in excess of £4million, though scored a combined six league goals last time around.”

He continued: “Either one or both of them need to discover their goalscoring form or we need to do some more business before the end of the transfer window. As yet, we are still owned by Steward Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori, and we’ve not significantly strengthened our forward line this summer.”

With these in mind, what does Rich believe is the club’s expectation heading into their third season in League One?: “I expect promotion – and if we as fans expect less than this we’re not doing ourselves justice and we’d be letting the owners off the hook. It’s simply not sustainable for Sunderland to operate at this level of the football pyramid for much longer.

“We’ve got plenty of experience in League One now so there are no surprises anymore. It’s time for us to push on and dominate the division.” – Rich stressed.

He then predicted a second-place finish for this side in 2020/21, his reason being: “We’ll be behind Hull City, who should have too much for everyone else.

“Other than Hull, I don’t see a stronger squad in the division than us right now. I wasn’t at all impressed with either Ipswich or Portsmouth last year and I have seen nothing in either sides’ summer transfer business that would suggest they have more this time round. Oli Hawkins moving to Portman Road is positive for them, though only if he can stay fit.”  

Rich, who specialises in writing about off-field issues and fan culture, soon began to describe what is going on at his club: “As last summer turned into autumn, a proposed big-money takeover from the US was being watered down into a £9million loan secured against the club’s two main assets – the Stadium and the Academy. That is when things started to go downhill.

“Methven, when questioned about the deal during the last structured dialogue meeting with fan groups, claimed that Sunderland fans are “remarkably uneducated in terms of business”. We’ve since had the #DonaldOut campaign from fan groups and fan media, revelations about the club writing off a loan of over £20million – effectively the remaining EPL parachute payments – owed to it by the owners’ holding company, and so many unfulfilled promises that we’re struggling to list them. Trust has evaporated and the antipathy runs deep. The owners have complained that it’s just not fun running a football club any more (is it supposed to be?). Although some fans’ behaviour both online and in person has been a disgrace, the owners now claim every piece of criticism as another example of “abuse”.

“They also want to make a profit on the sale of the club, which after twice failing to achieve their goal of promotion is a little bit rich, and they blame fan negativity and criticism for the fact that they’re yet to find a buyer. So we’re at a stalemate, with Stewart Donald resigning as Chairman but then asking for £35m for the club, and a host of weirdos claiming to be in negotiation, but then nothing happens.

“Overall, after 6 months off, we just can’t wait for the football to get going again!” – he continued.

I then began to question the supporter about how the implementation of the salary can has affected business at the Stadium of Light: “As our overall revenues are huge compared to the other sides in the league, the salary cap has obviously reduced our ability to bring in new players on the kinds of wages we otherwise would have. This has angered many fans, who see it as another instance of the EFL punishing Sunderland unfairly.

“I don’t necessarily agree with the majority view and I think in the long-run it will be a big positive by refocusing the club on youth development and ensuring that our spending is focused on all the other things that we require – including data, analytics and improving the fan experience when we’re allowed back in the ground. It has also forced Phil Parkinson to be creative in his signings and he’s since spoken of integrating the Under-23s squad as effectively an old-style reserve team due to the exclusion of younger players from the cap.”

Rich went on to highlight the player he thinks will stand out the most in the new season: “I think Bailey Wright is the key signing for us. He was on loan at the Stadium of Light toward the end of last season and was class apart. Keeping him fit at the centre of our back three will be vital to our promotion push.”

On Deadline Day in January 2019, Sunderland splashed the cash on Northern Irish forward Will Grigg, who made quite the name for himself at Wigan Athletic and for his national side, whom he represented at EURO 2016. That move has yet to pay off however, with the 29-year-old returning just 5 goals in 40 competitive appearances for the Black Cats – meaning Sunderland have paid out just under £1million per-goal. Rich chipped in to reveal how supporters currently feel toward the striker: “We’re all hopeful that Will Grigg, now that he looks fit and sharp and has reportedly moved to the North East, will find the kind of goalscoring form he had for Wigan and MK Dons.

“The signing of Aiden O’Brien was meant to add more goals to the side, but he’s not shone during preseason and I suspect that, despite his desire to play centrally, he’ll end up as one of the inside forwards challenging Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire for a place in the side. Other than that, we’re pretty light up front to be honest and it’s the biggest concern we have right now.” – He added, pointing out the need for Sunderland to bring in some fresh faces in attack.

I concluded my chat with the Roker Report presenter and writer by asking about the style of play implemented by manager Phil Parkinson and whether or not the majority of fans are in favour of his ideas: “Parkinson plays a 3-4-3 or 5-2-3 or as I see it, a 3-4-2-1 formation, and has the reputation for a “lump-it-long” style, relying upon Charlie Wyke as a big man playing with his back to goal, knocking balls down to the likes of Gooch and Maguire to get the goals.

“I took a photo in the home changing room before one of his first home games, and on the wall was the simple message “FORWARD RUNS, FORWARD PASSES”. It went a bit viral online and this is how most supporters now characterise our style of play.” – he included.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Rich though, who looks at the positive side of Parkinson’s tactics: “There is more to it than a simple command to lump it long. It is not popular, and has taken a long time to bed in, but when it works it can be very effective and, dare I say, attractive and exciting to watch.

“We combine well down the wings and, since Aiden McGeady’s exclusion from the first team we’ve gained more variety in our play. In Denver Hume and the nicest man in the world, Luke O’Nien, we have wing-backs who give their all. We have three ball-playing centre halves and an energetic, combative (but not agricultural) midfield.”

You can follow Rich and his team on Twitter – @RokerReport    

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