So, here we go again then? Apart from World Wars 1 and 2, this has been the longest period of time Sunderland have gone without a league fixture…
Ironically it begins where it all left off some six months ago, or at least against the same opposition. Back in March Bristol Rovers made a mockery of Sunderland on what has become an all too familiar pathetic and inept display from those in red and white shirts as they ran out comfortable 2-0 winners, meaning Saturday should be a good barometer as to whether we have improved or not.
As supporters sloped out of the away end at the Memorial Ground that evening, or retreated to their homes from pubs and clubs around the region or merely switched off the tv in disgust, nobody could have foreseen just how this year would play out since.
It’s been the most difficult, confusing and outright ludicrous number of months since that evening which, in hindsight, cost Phil Parkinson’s side the opportunity to at least contest a Play-Off fixture later down the road given there were no shortcuts in place for Sunderland to proverbially cut off their nose to spite their face...
The start of a new season however often brings about hope, routine and an escape in fluctuating measures but this time around it is difficult to comprehend where emotions both are and should be. The season is starting, but is it? It certainly doesn’t feel that way.
The prohibiting of supporters in stadia has thrown more than a spanner in the works of anticipation and excitement levels - instead derailing any crumb of normality. Even with Sunderland concerned, there’s just something not right and unappealing to games behind closed doors, albeit something we all need to come to terms with.
So just what can be expected from this a third season in League One? How long is a piece of string? There isn’t much to go off in terms of a pre-season with victories over Gateshead, Carlisle and Harrogate resembling little more than unfiltered fitness tests.
Once upon a time Sunderland would regularly kick off their pre-season schedule in July; a trip to Hartlepool United perhaps where, unfathomably, fans were able to meet up for the first time since the curtains were closed back in May of the previous season. Wounds healed, blushes overcome, it was an opportunity to be involved in a tangible start to the new campaign and follow the progression as levels and competitiveness stepped up each week, whereas this season has been little more than a week plonked in front of the start date; “there you go, crack on.”
In truth the season started last week with the Carabao Cup tie against Hull City, but even that week or so descended into madness. Sunderland were beaten in a penalty shootout - no surprises there - yet George Honeyman both took and converted a spot kick! I know, right. Danny Graham signed on Wearside for a second time after a glittering first stint in red and white and even managed to score in said shirt as Sunderland scored eight goals in a game! Aiden McGeady is alleged to have attempted reconciliation with Parkinson all while a gentleman with an erratic beard continues to crop up around Sunderland City landmarks and with ex players declaring his admiration and intentions for the club should his fanciful takeover bid be successful. Quite frankly you would find more logic and sense in a [socially distanced] government meeting than the past week at the Stadium of Light.
Which brings me back to my original query: what can be expected from this season? Promotion? Competitiveness? Mediocrity? More disappointment? The first number of fixtures should give us a greater understanding as to how this group of players have responded to a ‘pre-season’ under Parkinson.
Upon the managers arrival almost a year ago there was a bigger reaction in the aforementioned empty stadia than what there was from the Sunderland squad. Not until a severe fan backlash following a stalemate with Bolton Wanderers on Boxing Day did Parkinson succeed in mustering up a response from his players - a response which lasted all of six weeks.
One thing is for certain, Parkinson can ill-afford a slow start. The silence which will emanate around the Stadium of Light will be more deafening than any disgruntled supporters criticism should Sunderland flatter to deceive in the opening weeks of the season and another season of inconsistency become apparent.
For too long there has been a lack of an imposing presence from the club; something substantial for fans to cling on to throughout a season and really get behind. Where day one would often bring about renewed optimism among exceptional numbers in the Stadium of Light, Saturday will see ambivalent silence among none. So strap in, because this is going to be a season like no other, again.