After the dramatic conclusion to the Championship season Sunderland discovered just who would be joining them in League One next season, with the league set to be extremely competitive.
Subject to any changes in the decision-making process by the EFL with regards to Wigan Athletic’s points deduction, the Latics will join Charlton Athletic and Hull City on Sunderland’s fixture list next season along with Swindon Town, Plymouth Argyle, Crewe Alexandra and Northampton Town who arrive from League Two.
While the three clubs relegated from the Championship all arrive with their fair share of off-field unrest, it is hard to imagine any of them being too far outside of the bookmaker’s favourites for promotion straight back up.
Hull City’s demise in 2020 has been quite spectacular, even from a Sunderland point of view of spectacular. A 1-0 win at Hillsborough on New Year’s Day saw the Tigers sitting eighth in the Championship table, just one point outside the Play-Offs - if City were to leave the Championship this season you would have assumed it would have been in the right direction by gaining promotion to the Premier League.
Instead, Grant McCann’s side won just one of their remaining 20 games of the season, losing 16 in total. The loss of key players, Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki, can be attributed to a fall-off in form but six points from a possible 60 available leaves a lot to be desired.
With fan unrest and a clear hunger to drive out owner, Assem Allam, there are a lot of similarities between the Tigers and Sunderland; both heading into the unknown going into the new season. But you suspect that Hull, as it stands, have a selection of players who can compete in this division with ex-Sunderland captain, George Honeyman at the forefront. Manager Grant McCann, as unlikely as it is that he will remain in charge, has some pedigree in League One having been in charge of Peterborough United in 2016 before guiding his Doncaster Rovers side to the Play-Offs in 2019.
Hull may well go the same way as Ipswich Town did this season and find life in League One far from straightforward given their issues between the fans and ownership – how often does a club with fractious relationships succeed? But equally you would have to consider them, at this stage, a ‘rival’ for Sunderland and the rest of the chasing pack.
A meeting with Charlton is sure to bring back some harrowing memories for Sunderland fans, and being in the same division once more offers the possibility of meeting the Addicks at Wembley, but let’s not go there.
Charlton appear to have been plagued by ownership issues for some time now following the immensely turbulent time of Roland Duchâtelet, so again there are similarities with Sunderland with finances a crippling issue for the club who are forced into the sale of their most coveted assets.
Although without the likes of Joe Aribo and Lyle Taylor this time, Charlton do now possess the experience of being promoted from League One. Irrespective of off-field dramas there will be a burning desire to get that feeling back at The Valley and having done so through the Play-Offs, Charlton are more than capable of mounting another challenge for promotion next season. In Lee Bowyer they have a manager afforded the backing from most of the fanbase and players which, as they proved two seasons ago, can compete at the right end of the League One table.
Perhaps Charlton fall into the category of being a strong League One team but just not quite good enough for the Championship at this moment in time? The 2018-19 season saw a win, loss and a draw shared with Sunderland and you wouldn’t be surprised to see a similarly competitive record in 2020-21.
Conceivably the most dangerous of the three relegated teams from Sunderland’s perspective will be Wigan. Should their 12-point deduction be upheld there will be a righteous sense of feeling aggrieved for Paul Cook’s men whose 2020 form is only bettered by some of those clubs in the top six of the Championship table.
Cook, if rumours are to be believed, was on Sunderland’s list of candidates in October following the dismissal of Jack Ross which demonstrates his credentials as manager. He has experience of negotiating teams to promotion having lifted Portsmouth out of League Two and winning the League One title with Wigan in 2018.
The Latics will be a wounded animal heading into next season with a lot to prove. Much may depend on how many of their first team squad are sold to finance the club after the scandalous dealings of the ownership. Players such as Kieffer Moore, Antonee Robinson, Joe Gelhardt and Jamal Lowe will be sought after and may have to be moved on in order for the club to function.
But as Cook’s men have displayed in recent weeks, the spirit among the playing and coaching staff is as such that you would be naïve to rule out a strong promotion challenge from a side who have won the division twice in the last four years.
As with most seasons, there is often a surprise package who throw their hat into the ring of the promotion battle. Could that come from one of the four promoted teams from League Two? Plymouth made an immediate return to the division under Ryan Lowe and will be keen to avenge their showing during the 2018-19 campaign. Crewe have threatened promotion from League Two for a couple of seasons now before finally being rewarded and have a selection of players such as Perry Ng and Harry Pickering already on the radar of clubs from higher up the footballing ladder. Northampton and Swindon will represent a familiar challenge for Sunderland at this level as ‘the big boys’ are in town mentality undoubtedly sets in making such trips difficult.
Of those teams remaining in the division; Portsmouth will be desperate to go one better than their two consecutive Play-Off failures and are sure to be in the mix once more. Peterborough United, like Sunderland, will have a rather sizable chip on their shoulders having missed out on a Play-Off spot due to the points-per-game ruling. The Posh possess a number of attacking talent and will once again be one of the better sides in the division.
Oxford United will need to bounce back from Play-Off heartbreak, but in Karl Robinson there has been immense improvement in the clubs fortunes – often proving a thorn in Sunderland’s side over the past two seasons with just six points given up from the 12 available against them. Joey Barton’s Fleetwood Town look poised for a really strong push having comfortably involved themselves in the Play-Off picture last season. Loathe him as many Sunderland fans do, Barton has undoubtedly done a good job at Fleetwood and his side will again be a threat having learned from their Play-Off experience.
Ipswich will be expected to get their act together somewhat after a disappointing end to last season. The Tractor Boys started the season in impressive form and look destined for an immediate return to the Championship before coming unstuck midway through the season.
Then there are the likes of Burton Albion, Doncaster Rovers, Blackpool and Gillingham Town – those middle of the roaders who may not threaten the promotion race themselves, but are more than capable of taking points away from those who are chasing. Sunderland took just six points from the quartet combined last season, with the only victory coming at Doncaster.
Whichever way you analyse the league ahead of the new season it looks like it will be another tough season for Sunderland – with all of the off-field issues, a lack of first team bodies and a reluctance to even begin the summer recruitment, it is hard to muster up any optimism for a strong promotion challenge.
Of course, this can change once the chess pieces start moving and the squad takes shape, but given how Sunderland have done in the previous two seasons when in a better shape to compete, the reality of an even longer period of time at this level looks a very genuine threat.