The 2018/19 season was, for many Sunderland AFC fans, yet another anti-climax in an odyssey of disappointments spanning these past five years. A promising opening third of the League One season involving an impressive unbeaten streak, a free-scoring teenaged academy prospect in Josh Maja and the long awaited appearance of competent ownership may have led some fans to believe that, finally, the Sunderland curse had been lifted.
As usual, the familiar feeling of disappointment soon descended upon us.
As the season progressed, the weaknesses within our squad were slowly highlighted. Maja’s departure in January to pursue a larger wage in France left the club with a chronic scoring issue, aided only partly by the expensive yet unconvincing arrival of Will Grigg. Our performances led to two Wembley appearances, both ending in heartbreak; a loss to Portsmouth on penalties in the Checkatrade Trophy Final after leading for most of the game, and a shattering defeat to Charlton in the dying seconds of the Playoff Final which condemned the club to another campaign in the third tier of English football. The main question on the lips of all fans on the depressing walk away from Wembley on final day: what next?
Success in this following season is integral for the future prospects of this club. For this to be achieved, several actions need to occur.
Positive Player Recruitment
As of this moment, Sunderland have been inactive in the 2019 Summer Transfer Window, other than the departure of full-back Reece James to promotion rivals Doncaster. Last season heavily proved the fact that our squad has neither the depth nor the quality to be serious promotion candidates. One area in particular which needs strengthening is our centre-backs, who proved at several points last season to be serious liabilities. Transfer targets Curtis Nelson and George Edmundson were quickly snapped up by Oxford United and Rangers respectively, leaving Sunderland short for potential arrivals in this area. Such an important position simply cannot be neglected in this transfer window.
Sunderland suffered from a horrific scoring issue in the latter half of the season following the departure of starlet Josh Maja. In order to enjoy any form of success, Sunderland must find some manner in which to break their scoring curse; at points they seemed chronically unable to score more than one goal per game. Pairing a fully fit Will Grigg with a prolific strike partner is, again, integral for the long term success of this club.
Believe in Youth
Sunderland AFC has long been renowned for its youth system, boasting an impressive set of alumni: Liverpool Captain and UCL winner Jordan Henderson and England first choice goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to name but a few. Recently, such prospects as Lynden Gooch and Josh Maja have seen relative success as prominent members of the Sunderland squad, with local lad George Honeyman impressing to the extent of being named captain for the inaugural League One campaign. With this in mind, some issues prevalent in this squad must be solvable with the use of internal youth promotion, and several key areas of the squad could be heavily improved through this practice. For instance, the young Denver Hume showed flashes of promise last year, and may eventually replace the possible departure candidate of Bryan Oviedo. Furthermore, midfielder Elliot Embleton has frequently shown quality in loan spells away from the club, and could definitely play a valuable part in the future of Sunderland AFC.
Moreover, such efforts to introduce organic talent to the squad may lead to improved squad cohesion. Manager Jack Ross faced criticism last year at points due to his seemingly uninspired tactics, though the high rate of squad turnover must be partly responsible for this. Ross had at his disposal a squad including many players who had only a short period of months in which to gel. By integrating more youth talent who have already played alongside each other since a young age, the repercussions of such an issue may be alleviated.
Keep the Faith in Sunderland AFC
If last season had one positive, it was the extent of support retained by Sunderland despite their catastrophic consecutive relegations to the third tier. Attendance at the Stadium of Light reached a height of 46,000 at Sunderland’s Boxing Day clash with Bradford, with these same fans consistently following the club across the country. Our support truly marks us out as the big dogs of League One; to enjoy sustained success, it is integral that this support is retained.
In the following season, there can only be one central goal- to secure automatic promotion to the Championship. A club of Sunderland’s stature and history does not belong in the third tier and, with some luck, they will soon return to their former glory.