So the game is on, the season will kick off after all – and Pete Sixsmith chooses to look back as well as forwards …
Saturday sees M Salut and moi starting our 48th season as fully committed Sunderland supporters. In 1963, we lined up with the likes of Jimmy Montgomery, Charlie Hurley, Martin Harvey and Johnny Crossan. This year, we have Kieran Westwood, Titus Bramble, Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon. Have things got any better?
It’s also the 20th year of the self styled “Greatest League in the World”. In 1992, we had 92 Football League clubs with the TV money shared out on a reasonable pro-rata basis. Some clubs were wealthier than others, as had always been the case, but there was no great concentration of huge amounts of money in the hands of a few. There’s change then!
Of the 19 seasons of the PL, we have spent 10 of them in the exalted company of Arsenal, Manchester United etc without ever really ever looking as if we could make that all important break through. Under Peter Reid, we had two seventh placed finishes, but most of them have been in the bottom half and on three occasions, actually in the bottom 3.
Steve Bruce has kept us out of that area quite successfully. We flirted with the edge of relegation last year, but I don’t think anyone ever felt that we would get dragged into a dogfight. But it was close and there must be no repetition of that this year.
We have a generous owner who needs to see something for his investment. The last two managers have been able to take advantage of his generosity and have brought player after player in to wear the famous red and white stripes. Two years ago, we had Cana, Bent, Turner and Cattermole joining. Last year, in came Elmohamady, Onuoha, Bramble and Gyan. This year, it’s Brown, Gardner, Vaughan and Larsson. There are some decent players in that list.
What our managerial team have to do now is to make sure that this latest batch of players gel – and gel quickly. Our first two games are high profile and the second one will define our season. Win that one and the bandwagon starts rolling; lose it or play as abjectly as we did in January and Steve Bruce is under the most intense pressure.
The squad looks stronger in some areas than others.
We have three decent keepers, two of who are fit. We look solid across the back, with a raft of experienced players, some of who have played at the highest level. But there is a nagging doubt at left back, where we still seem determined to switch between a right footer and a left winger.
In midfield, the emphasis has been on strength and power and the passing of the ball rather than giving it away. Malbranque and Reid, who starred in the opening day win at Bolton two years ago, have left and have been replaced by more prosaic players in Gardner and Larsson.
Prosaic yes, but more reliable and less inclined to run out of puff 60 minutes into the game. Gardner and Larsson should give us much more push in the centre of the park and hopefully give us more goals. Larsson might even enable us to score from a set piece.
David Vaughan could be the difference between 10th place and 6th. He could be the man who will prise open opposition defences for Sessegnon and Gyan to score the goals that will give us a season to remember rather than the usual frustrating one.
But will he start? And if he does, where will he play? In the middle? Wide left? Bruce and Black have to accommodate him if we are to create. I don’t see a central midfield of Cattermole and Gardner creating a great deal, no more than Cattermole and Cana did two years ago. That’s another problem for the management team.
Goals have been in short supply pre season, with Sessegnon being the only player to score regularly. Gyan is a wonderful talent but he needs to start well and score regularly if he is not to be seen as an expensive luxury.
I am optimistic that the new players will settle in. I believe that we have as good a squad as we have ever had, with plenty of cover for whatever is the First XI. I can see us giving the top teams a good game,beating those around us and not slipping up against the strugglers and stragglers.
After 48 years of support, I start every season with optimism. We have started seasons without managers, without money and without any decent players. We have started off at Brentford, Swindon, Orient and Walsall. We have won 3-1 at Villa, had a sparkling 3-3 draw with Leicester and been hammered 5-0 at Derby.
But we keep going back because there is always that possibility that we might do something, that we might challenge near the top of the league and that we might do well in one of the cups. The 3,000 heading for Anfield will want our new players to eclipse Henderson, Adam and Downing and then turn their strength on whichever Frenchmen will be playing for the Mags the week after.
Ha’way the Lads …