Key player: Aiden McGeady
McGeady is a player who defines class. At this level, he’s evidently far too good to compete with most others. His assists per minute output was the second best in the league last season and his role in their success was all the more remarkable given that he was only integrated back into the side after Lee Johnson’s appointment.
The Irishman had truly had his bridges burnt with previous manager Phil Parkinson who declared that McGeady had no future at the club following rumoured off-field unrest. He came back with a bang however and was at the heart of the initial ‘good streak’ under Johnson’s management. At one point, he even got four assists in the same game.
McGeady regained the affections of the Sunderland fans and even showed goodwill by waiving an automatic pay increase that allowed him to play in the League One play-offs at the end of last season. If the Mackems do anything this season, the veteran wizard will be at the heart of it.
eason, the veteran wizard will be at the heart of it.
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Manager: Lee Johnson
Sunderland are a club who’ve been stuck in a bit of a rut over the last few years. Much like Sheffield United before them, they’ve got stuck in League One and have stayed stuck for much longer than their fans would ever have envisaged. What they planned as a one season whistle stop tour of England’s third tier has turned into a nightmare holiday and the man they’ve entrusted to get them out is Lee Johnson.
On one hand, Johnson seems a sensible choice. He had a successful few season at Bristol City and whilst his departure seemed about right at the time, they’ve been worse without him. That said, he was somewhat fortunate to earn that move in the first place having left Barnsley in mid-table in a year that they’d later go on to get promoted (albeit they were on a good run).
Perhaps it will be a concern for Sunderland fans that he earned the nickname ‘Streaky Johnson’ at the Robins. Aside from being something of a double entendre, it speaks to his ability to go on erratic runs of good and bad form. Sunderland saw the Jekyll and Hyde of Johnson last season and as yet, the jury from the fans is very much out.
He hasn’t yet earned a promotion and that’s a box he’ll definitely want to tick on his CV before he leaves Tyneside.
Playmaker: Elliot Embleton
Embleton had never quite established himself in Sunderland’s team by the start of 2021, so to see him loaned out on winter deadline day wasn’t a great surprise. It was somewhat surprising to see him loaned to Blackpool of all teams, as they were on a good run of form and looking like competing with Sunderland with a play-off berth.
The move did backfire as Sunderland fans might have feared, Embleton found a niche for the Tangerines. He had extremely successful half season and helped to get them promoted at the expense of Lincoln, who had beaten his host club to get to the final.
Now however, Embleton is back in the North East a re-vitalised player and Johnson has stated his intention to re-introduce him into the team. He has been used as a number ten in pre-season and he could add another source of creativity to compliment McGeady.
Key departure: Charlie Wyke
For someone who scored a stunning 31 goals for Sunderland last season, Wyke was strangely mistrusted by much of the club’s fanbase. Perhaps it was due to the fact he never quite got going in previous campaigns, but you’d think such a remarkable season would correct his reputation.
Whilst it is true that Wyke’s form very much improved when McGeady made his grand re-entrance, you don’t pass the 30 goal mark without being a very nifty player in your own right. Poached by newly monied Wigan, Sunderland will find goals a lot harder to come by these days. Something like that could be the difference in a highly competitive top end of the league.
Some supporters will probably see any season spent at this level as a failure, but realistically, it will be tough to expect them to challenge for the top two this season, given the depth of the squad overhaul. Of course, it isn’t totally impossible but top six is a far more realistic target. It’s one they should be able to achieve but the new ownership may lose patience with Johnson’s yo-yoing form.
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