As pre-season hots up for Premier Legaue teams up and down the country, thoughts begin to turn to expectations for the coming year and what can be realistically expected from clubs come next May.
Of all the teams due to kick off in August, Sunderland are perhaps the most difficult one to assess, mainly because the 2011/12 season was a strange one for the Wearsiders.
Martin O’Neill replaced the hapless Steve Bruce in December, which in the circumstances was certainly an upgrade (Bruce, now at Hull City, won’t manage in the Premier League again unless he gets somebody promoted), but O’Neill had a peculiar first six months in charge that leaves questions about what Sunderland can achieve next term.
The Northern Irishman had a blistering start to his tenure at the Stadium of Light, winning seven of his first 12 league games: only the Manchester clubs won more points than Sunderland’s 22 over that period.
But if O’Neill’s motivational skills forced over-achievement in a decent but hardly stellar group of players, his powers of persuasion were on the wane by the season’s end.
The Black Cats won just two of their last 12 league matches, scoring only 11 goals, to finish the campaign in limp fashion. The meek surrender at home to Everton in the FA Cup quarter-final was indicative of the late-season slump.
It was the very definition of a mixed year and O’Neill has much to do if he wants to improve Sunderland. Having ended up in 13th, the former Aston Villa boss will no doubt be aiming for a top-ten finish but transfer activity has been limited – O’Neill is famous for last-minute moves in the market – and with Nicklas Bendtner unlikely to sign on a permanent deal, Sunderland’s squad looks a little thin.
The next friendly for the Black Cats is a local affair as they make the short trip to Hartlepool to face the Monkey Hangers on Friday evening. The Premier League outfit are 1/2 favourites to beat their League One counterparts, with Hartlepool the 17/4 outsiders. The draw is 29/10.
Jeff Stelling’s team have had a bit of a poor pre-season so far results-wise, failing to beat Whitby last time out and losing to twice in two games on a tour of Holland.
Still, manager Neale Cooper, who guided Pool to a 13th-placed finish last year, is hoping the first of three consecutive home games against good opposition before the start of the season will begin to get his side match sharp.
Cooper will also hope a full house at Victoria Park will provide a good atmosphere. Sunderland’s last visit to Hartlepool, also a pre-season friendly last summer, finished 3-1 but it could be case
Sunderland have come back from a tour of South Korea – that’s not North Korea, by the way, Olympic organisers – winning one and losing one of their two games. Back in the UK, they will hope to make the most of their superior talent against their local rivals, but they may not find it too easy.
Hartlepool kept nine clean sheets and conceded only 22 goals in 23 home games last season. But Pool also only scored 23 and with Victoria Park not renowned for goalmouth action, the 11/10 on under 2.5 goals perks my interest here.
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