It is the time of year when nervous fingers click between Twitter, safc.com and newsnow for updates on who we’ve bought or borrowed, who’s gone or going and what the boss may be thinking about his team selection.
Despite a nagging feeling that summer has been slow for Sunderland on the transfer front, there have been important comings and goings already.
It was right to clear out Bardsley, Gardner and Vaughan. All had done their bit for the club; none was consistent enough or had sufficient quality to make their departures feel worrying.
Jack Rodwell is, by common consent, a terrific addition to midfield, more than making up for the disappointment of losing Jack Colback. Patrick van Aanholt carries the promise of forging a partnership on the left with Adam Johnson to recreate the heady days of Gray and Magic. Santiago Vergini is welcome back to bolster the defence and Costel Pantilimon will give Vito Mannone a run for money in goal.
But we all wanted more. And “all” includes Gus Poyet. The pursuit of Fabio Borini has been exhausting, and so far inconclusive, other rumoured targets have slipped from view (if, being brutal about the limitations of speculation, they ever figured in the club’s view) and we still do not know whether Connor Wickham or others, who may well include Adam Johnson, will still be Sunderland players come the transfer window’s closure.
What the season holds is therefore to some extent an indefinable issue. We do not even know for sure who will turn out at the Hawthorns, who may be in or out by the time kickoff arrives and what else lies ahead between now and the end of August. What I do know is that with a tough home game to follow against Man Utd, a decent start is essential at WBA, unhappy territory for us in recent seasons.
Asked by ESPN to nominate a starting 11, I went for Mannone; Jones, Brown, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Gomez, Rodwell, Cattermole, Johnson; Giaccherini; Fletcher.
Jones and Giaccherini, we know, are now out injured, blasting an early hole in my predicted line-up. Poyet may stick with his own man, Liam Bridcutt, ahead of Catts. I hope he does not play both, as they fulfill roles that are too similar. But if he moved Gomez up behind Fletcher in place of Giaccherini, there could be room for Seb Larsson, who finished an indifferent season in some style. Vergini for Jones seems a given.
But we also do not know what resemblance Saturday’s team selection will bear to the 11 who start against Spurs at home on September 13.
The Wickham saga is disturbing. Poyet said he had to “sign or go”, his dad said he’d not even been offered a new contract and now West Ham are sniffing around for a bargain. If he truly won’t sign, then the club is right to make what it can of his remaining market value with the existing contract running out. But there are echoes of Bent here; are Sunderland really so well-equipped up front that it is wise to sell, without any new attackers snapped up, a striker who at last started to live up to the potential late last season?
Not surprisingly, with so much unfinished business, predictions are all over the place. BBC Radio Newcastle, or one of its pundits, apparently had us down for another 14th finish, ie no improvement. At ESPN, I wrote this:
Steve Bruce bemoaned the weight of unrealistic expectation among Sunderland’s large following which, on cool analysis, has had to make do — apart from the exciting promotion seasons and Peter Reid’s successive seventh-top Premier League finishes — with 40 years of mid-table anonymity and, more commonly, relegations suffered or narrowly avoided. Before the unhappy end to his managerial stint, he also delivered a 10th top finish for which he has never received adequate credit. Most fans would settle for that in May, as part of a longer-term project; 13th may be a likelier outcome.
With more space, I’d have balanced the praise for Bruce by rebuking him for his absurd posturing ever since he left the Stadium of Light.
Pete Sixsmith, in The Observer as repeated here, was more upbeat, going for 10th. Invited to name key players. Sixer replied:
The ones who dragged us out of the mess we were in last year – Brown, O’Shea, Cattermole and Fletcher, although he desperately needs an injury-free start. The arrival of Jack Rodwell is an important one and gives us a box to box player that we badly need.
And yours? Have your say …
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