As we prepare to kick off our League 1 campaign on Saturday at home to Bristol Rovers, we gathered the ALS regular writers together and asked them the same five questions in a round table discussion and here's the results of that conversation and their predictions for the upcoming season.
Have you missed the football and are you looking forward to the new season? Giles Mooney is feeling a bit more positive for the beginning of the new season, compared to last season saying, “I didn't miss it at all when it stopped, it was one of those things no one could control and there were more important things going on in the world. Also it ended with such a dreadful couple of performances it felt a bit like my prayers had been answered. I also didn't really get involved when it was reintroduced to finish off the end of the season. It was as half-hearted as expected with players with nothing to play for not really committing and a bit of a procession to let Liverpool and Leeds lift their titles. But now there's a new season, I can't wait. Looking forward to new beginnings for the club in a whole range of ways - first team, academy and boardroom.”
Sobs is also looking forward to the new season, even though it doesn't feel the same, adding “Too bloody right I've missed it, but because of the way last season fizzled out and our inability to attend matches for the foreseeable future, I'm struggling to look forward to the new season. If the fans aren't there, it's not real. Watching on the TV, even with a bottle of Maxim and the lucky socks, just isn't the same.”
Gary Burrell also spoke of lockdown football and he isn't a fan but despite taking more of an interest the lads are back in action, he doesn't plan to watch our opener on Saturday, "I’ve missed football, but just in the same way I’ve missed all other aspects of normal life this year. During lockdown, and with more free time than usual, I found myself watching more football on TV and online than previously - archive footage of old SAFC games, FA Cup finals, World Cup classics etc. and found myself craving the return of all football, not just Sunderland matches. Once our own league campaign was curtailed and the Premier League returned to our screens in June, it didn’t take long for that excitement to fizzle out. Football without fans has been dreadful. I’ve tried to immerse myself into the games as much as possible, but even with fake crowd noise and important games being played, there has been little pleasure to be gained. Now that Sunderland are about to kick off their new Season I’m feeling a lot more interested, but I’ve not streamed any of our pre-season or cup ties so far and I’ll not be watching on Saturday either."
Do you think we have enough in the squad to push for promotion?
Giles thinks we need a couple more players to push for automatic promotion, especially in the heart of the pitch, “We're close. I'm impressed with the defensive improvements and I think we're only a couple of players away from a title winning squad. Another striker and a midfielder who can pick up play and move the whole game 15-20 yards forwards quickly. We haven't had that for years. In this division I think it's like the missing link. Get that, get promoted. Without those two I think it'll be play offs where we're bound to face Charlton!”
Sobs reckons that we have a good shout, saying “I don't see why not, Wycombe managed it by playing far less football than us last season, and Hull have shown, in the cup game, that the sides (them at least) who've come down are nothing to fear. The biggest hurdle in my eyes is turning chances into goals - again, see the Hull game. Maguire, Gooch, and O'Brien need to weigh in. Josh Maja on loan, perhaps?”
Gary is cautiously optimistic but also feels we could do with a few more additions to the squad, "Just! It’s probably the worst squad of players in our entire history, but it’s all relevant and I don’t see why we don’t have enough to mount a challenge for promotion. Again, we’re crying out for pace, power and creativity in the midfield and someone to guarantee putting the ball in the net, but with the right system and some good fortune on the injury front, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be thereabouts come May." Is Phil Parkinson the man to take us up? Giles Mooney is hopeful more than anything that PP is the man to take us back, although he holds reservations with his tactics, “Let's hope so because I've had enough of this division. I've not been a fan from day one but he's in the chair and it's certainly not the time to change the manager. My concern is that he doesn't seem t have a plan B. When we've been worked out by a team we just keep banging away with the same tactics. It's the definition of madness, but I can't see him ever changing!”
Sobs is strongly against the thought of dispensing the boss saying it is. “The last thing we want or need is another change at the top. Parky has established a pattern of play, and is the only manager we've ever had who's made three at the back sort of work for more than the odd game. The players at least look like they know what they're supposed to be doing, so we need to stick with it and make it work.”
Gary also doesn't see the need to change a manager, despite not being Parky's biggest fan! He reckons that Parkinson can be the man to get us back to the Championship if we hit the ground running, "Why not? I’m no fan of his, but you have to be realistic as to the shambolic state we’re in. Without a takeover, I see no benefit in changing manager again and I also think that were enough glimpses last year of a system and style of play that could just about work with this group of players. My main concern is when we don’t hit the ground running in games and need a Plan B. But how many times have we said that with previous managers too?"
Do you feel that the COVID situation is under control enough to allow fans back into stadiums and if so will you be attending as soon as you are allowed to do so? Giles thinks that the virus restrictions are here for the long term, at least until there is a major breakthrough, “I don't think we're anywhere near being under control. People aren't acting with any common sense and a lot don't believe it's really a dangerous virus. Until that changes I think this will drag on for as long as the virus wants. I live a long way from Sunderland these days so, selfishly, the streaming world works quite well for me! But I'd rather be back listening to the match on the radio and hear the fans roaring. Hopefully by the time it's back to near normality there'll be something to roar about.”
Sobs will definitely be back but it's a case of when, and he doesn't predict that time being anytime soon, “No, and I can't see it being under control for a long time. The club has done a really good job in working out how to get people back to the match safely - but, as the majority have spent the last 23 years failing to understand the difference between entrance and exit for the toilets, I can't see them suddenly changing. I'll be back as soon as I'm allowed to, applying common sense rather than just following the rules, and will avoid the concourse at all costs.”
Gary isn't feeling positive for a return to the stands either, "I think we’re a long way off, unfortunately. I didn’t renew my season card as I cannot see how we can be allowed into the Stadium any time soon, and talk of an October return seems unfathomable at this stage. Once we can return, even at reduced capacity, I’ll be back – even with the current owners." Predictions for the season. Where will we finish? Who else do you think will be pushing for promotion?
Giles can see us pushing for the title if we make a couple more additions and if Phil Parkinson can make his tactics dynamic, “I think it depends on Parky having a Plan B and those two extra signings. With them, the title could be ours, there's nothing wildly exciting in the division to stop us. I think Peterborough, Portsmouth and Ipswich will be there or thereabouts. My outside pick is Lincoln to be in the mix. Also I live under a mile from Northampton Town's ground so I'm obliged to give them a mention, though I think they'd be happy with mid table. Hoping I'm allowed into grounds by 2nd January at the latest!”
Sobs reckons if we can turn those draws, which we've seen plenty of in the past few seasons, into wins then we can push for automatic promotion, “Definitely not Hull, and probably not Wigan, who seem to be in terminal free fall. Charlton will probably be near the top, as will Peterborough. I can't see any of the teams that have come up continuing a charge up the league. As long as we avoid the draws that have blighted the last couple of seasons, I predict top three for us.”
Gary is still optimistic for the season but sees us just being pipped to automatic promotion, saying that "other clubs in the mix will probably be Charlton, Portsmouth, Oxford, Fleetwood and Peterborough. My lack of imagination mirrors my lack of knowledge at this level to be honest. Finally, I predict 3rd Place for SAFC and a play-off final - the result of which will depend if fans are back. A Wembley victory without any of us in attendance, would be a very ‘Sunderland thing’ to do! Ha’way the Lads!