Following four long years in League One, Sunderland are finally back in the Championship. Their playoff final victory was met with celebrations and a massive sigh of relief. More than 30,000 season tickets have already been sold ahead of their first game as positivity grows throughout fans that their darkest days are behind them. However, realism is still needed ahead of their first Championship campaign since their relegation in 2018. We take a look at last season, the summer and the campaign ahead in the Sunderland season preview.
Sunderland Season Preview 2022/23
Years of Hurt, Frustration and Near Misses
To say Sunderland fans have suffered through the years would be an understatement. There have been highs but the lows have been devastating. Several great escapes were needed to ensure Premier League survival until a David Moyes-led team were relegated with little fight.
Their return to the Championship was brief as their Premier League players either left or faded into obscurity. A new team was built with very little money and relegation for a second consecutive season was on the cards from an early stage. It was little surprise when the inevitable happened; however, it didn’t make it hurt any less.
In the four years in League One, the Black Cats missed out on promotion twice through defeat in the playoffs. Once in the final at Wembley and once via the semi-finals. They did however end their run of defeats at Wembley by winning the EFL Trophy in 2021. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, no fans were in attendance.
Promotion Finally Achieved
— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) May 21, 2022
Last season, Sunderland finally got it right. Following the dismissal of Lee Johnson, another season in League One looked inevitable. However, the arrival of Alex Neil brought a new air of confidence to Wearside and results improved. The team went on an unbeaten run that saw the Black Cats reach the playoff final at Wembley. Backed by 45,000 fans at, Sunderland beat Wycombe Wanderers to finally gain promotion.
Alex Neil Deserves Huge Credit
Prior to Alex Neil taking over from the sacked Lee Johnson, Sunderland were enduring a poor run of form and conceding goals at an alarming rate. A 6-0 defeat at Bolton Wanderers was the final game for Johnson. Neil came in and made the team a different proposition for opponents. They became harder to break down and would go on an undefeated streak that would guarantee them a playoff place.
By the time the final whistle had blown at Wembley, Neil’s side had gone 16 games unbeaten and promotion was finally a reality.
Shares Saga Over
Months of uncertainty finally came to an end over the summer. Former owner and chairman Stewart Donald and shareholder Charlie Methven were actively looking to sell their shares in the club. Football ownership group ‘The Fans Together’ were those who had a bid accepted by Methven and Donald with another party unnamed. However, this was hit with backlash from fans with a petition set up to try and stop the cryptocurrency group from getting involved in the club.
However, it finally emerged that the current chairman and majority shareholder Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and director Juan Sartori had bought all of Methven’s shares and also acquired a large portion of Donald’s shares. It made Louis-Dreyfus the majority shareholder with a 51% stake in the club.
Sunderland Season Preview: New signings and New Contracts
Soon after the win at Wembley Sunderland set about deciding who they wanted to retain from those coming to the end of their contracts and who they would like to sign over the summer transfer window.
New contracts were given to defender Bailey Wright, the versatile Lynden Gooch and forward Patrick Roberts. Young goalkeeper Anthony Patterson who made the number one position his own during the second half of last season was rewarded with a contract extension.
Jack Clarke was signed on a permanent deal from Tottenham Hotspur having impressed on loan. Leon Dajaku’s loan was also made permanent. Defenders Daniel Ballard and Aji Alese were signed from Arsenal and West Ham United respectively. Goalkeeper Alex Bass joined from Portsmouth and striker Ellis Simms came in on loan from Everton.
All the players who signed were under the age of 24, fitting into the transfer model that the club is attempting to adhere to. Speaking earlier this transfer window, Alex Neil spoke to the Shields Gazzette. He said: “The strategy for this club is to buy young developing players, improve them and create value within the team, create value within the club and the squad.
“They will be supplemented by senior players, a Danny Batth, a Bailey Wright, a Corry Evans, an Alex Pritchard, but the majority of our transfer fees, pretty much all of our transfer fees, will be spent on younger players.”
Several players left the club following their contracts ending. These included striker Will Grigg and veteran winger Aiden McGeady. Also departing were defenders Arbenit Xhemajli and Jordan Willis plus goalkeeper Lee Burge. Loan signings, Callum Doyle and Thorben Hoffmann also left the club for pastures new.
Pre-season is all about getting fit ahead of the new campaign and giving as many players as possible the chance to impress during friendly games. However, it is also a chance to get a winning mentality installed. The latter has unfortunately not happened following several disappointing results.
These friendlies did give Alex Neil the chance to take a closer look at a lot of players that he may not have had a chance to work with having only arrived in February himself. Despite some of the results, many players will have benefited from the game time they had.
Sunderland Season Preview: Fans Can Finally Look Forward With Confidence but Also Need to Be Realistic
Over 30,000 season tickets have been sold and more than 40,000 fans are expected for the opening game against Coventry City on Sunday. Confidence has been growing on Wearside since their Wembley win and the shares saga finally ending. With Alex Neil in charge, fans are confident that the club is heading in the right direction.
However, everyone connected with the club, no matter how confident should also be realistic ahead of the new season. Neil and his players have the quality to make this a good season but for many, this will be their first taste of Championship football. A season not battling relegation would be classed as a success and be built upon in the future.
Speaking to the Sunderland Echo ahead of the Coventry game and the season, Alex Neil had this message for supporters: “It’s not going to be easy, there will be frustrations along the way and there will be people who start doubting us and start doubting some of the players.
“All I would ask is, the lads did everything possible last year to try and get us back to where we’re trying to get to, stick with us because it’s going to be a bumpy road. I can promise everyone that me and these lads will work as hard as we possibly can to try and make it work.
“The club needs stability and I’d say that whether it was me sat here or someone else. There needs to be a period where there’s not a lot of chopping and changing, where you can stick to a plan. Any team that has long-term success, stability is a constant across all of them. That’s where we need to get to.”