The majority of Sunderland fans would be lying if they said they hadn’t been expecting more from Martin O’Neill’s first full summer in charge. With obvious weaknesses in the squad and assurances from the manager and Chairman Ellis Short that the club would be targeting quality signings, the solitary arrival of Carlos Cuellar hasn’t exactly revitalised the Stadium of Light faithful ahead of the upcoming campaign. Supporters have spent many a transfer window analysing the merits of a host of new signings but there has been rapid change of pace on Wearside this time around with more departures than new arrivals.
In part this reserved activity was inevitable as O’Neill was bound to focus on whittling out the deadwood in his squad but the terraces know all too well which positions need to be strengthened and so far the club have made very little progress. With Wolves endlessly batting away inflated offers for Steven Fletcher, Sunderland’s progress has in part been crippled by selling clubs looking to take advantage of their desperation for reinforcements but to their credit they have remained steadfast in their recruitment drive and still have time to find the right names.
Despite a low key summer, the club are still in a great position to challenge for the top 10. Whether they can push for a European place will rely heavily on their pre-deadline day efforts but despite being a fair way behind to League’s top dogs, the Black Cats have an excellent foundation to build upon next season and can look to enjoy some cup success while cementing their place as the best of rest.
One to watch next season
Plenty has been made of Irish winger James McClean after his impressive debut season in the North East culminated in a call up to Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2012 squad. Despite Stephane Sessegnon bearing the brunt of Sunderland’s attacking threat, the 23 year old has become one of the first names on the team sheet after countless energetic performances illustrated how wrong Steve Bruce was to leave him in the reserves. Having been thrown in at the deep end during O’Neill’s first game in charge, the former Derry City star has hardly looked back since and managed to score 6 times in side that often struggled in front of goal. His determined work rate has made him a fan’s favourite and an expected switch to the right wing will help develop his game still further by allowing him progress from a raw talent to a versatile Premier League midfielder.
His reported £350,000 transfer fee looks a snip compared to the inflated prices being touted around this summer and shines a light on the £9m offer from West Ham that Wolves rejected for Matt Jarvis, proving there is value for money if you’re willing to look for it. With bags of energy and a never say die attitude that makes him just as responsible defensively as going forward, the speedy winger’s progress is one of the main sparks to excite fans going into the new season. Sunderland have finally found a solution to their left sided midfield woes and possess a player who can make the position his own while they seek to strengthen in other areas.
The Black Cats have struggled to find any real consistency in recent years, particularly in front goal since the departure of Darren Bent, but players like McClean have affordably helped them rediscover their attacking flair and the final piece of the puzzle is finding someone to put the ball in the back of the net. O’Neill’s troops look threatening as a counter attacking side and the pace and skill of McClean will play a major role in the hopes for re-establishing their top 10 status next season.
Despite a Kevin Ball inspired youth setup churning out a number of talented aspiring stars, Sunderland fans have rarely seen the fruits of his labours in recent seasons but with Jack Colback looking more and more accomplished in the centre of midfield, they could finally have a home grown hero to get behind. After the departure of Jordan Henderson, there were concerns that the Black Cats may have lost one of their best fledgling talents but ‘the North East’s answer to Paul Scholes’ has shown he’s a mature passer of the ball and is by no means out of his depth in the top flight. His progression is in stark contrast to the stuttering path walked by Henderson at Liverpool and another season of first team football could see Colback outshine his former team mate.
As well as ousting central midfielders such as David Vaughan and Craig Gardner from the starting line up, the youngster has also shown he’s defensively adept when filling in at left-back and this versatility is another string to his ever strengthening bow. With an old head on young shoulders Colback keeps possession well and tracks back to defend but he also found the net twice last season, including a wonder strike against local rivals Middlesbrough, and will be looking to add more goals to his game. Having been given the backing of his manager after spells of intermittent game time, the steep learning curve he experienced last season will stand him in good stead for an improved campaign. Supporters should still be cautiously nurturing given the competition for places at the club and no one can predict potential injuries and personal disruptions but Colback should play an increasingly integral role in the side.
Expectations for the upcoming campaign
It’s always a tough task trying to assess Sunderland’s potential fortunes. On the one hand they’re clearly a big side with a large stadium, passionate supporters and an experienced manager backed by a wealthy owner with European aspirations. On the other hand they’re one of a number of mid-table teams looking to take the next step up in class but have little pedigree to suggest such progression is especially likely. Long gone are the good old days of Peter Reid and while the foundations for a repeat performance are still there, the current squad on paper do not look capable of reaching those heights. Add to that the years spent yo-yoing to and from the Championship and it’s only in the last few seasons that the club have truly reaffirmed their position as a top side.
Fans know they need a number of fresh faces if they’re to move forward but so far nothing much has materialised on the transfer front and until improvements are made, it’s hard to look beyond another inauspicious mid-table finish. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom for the squad is looking much healthier now than in previous injury ravaged seasons. Should the club attract a new striker and left back to the North East in the next few weeks then they will have every position in the squad covered. O’Neill has already shown during his short reign in charge that he is more than capable of inspiring his players to go above and beyond for the cause and if he can get the best of his squad when they’re lacking in a few areas then the sky’s the limit should he finally fill those gaps.
In reality an 8th placed finish and a cup run would satisfy most but the club’s ambitions are to challenge for Europe so if the owners can back that sentiment with transfer funds then fans can expect a much stronger assault on the Premier League next season.
What excites/concerns you ahead of next season? Which player’s are you looking forward to seeing at the SOL?
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