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Can Sunderland’s squad retain unity after this off-field incident?

The Boot Room

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The departure of Margaret Byrne was not met with much upset on Wearside. To many, the move came too late and after it was revealed that Byrne was aware of Johnson kissing his 15 year old victim. From a legal standpoint, it could be argued that suspending a man who intended to plead not guilty would have looked judgmental. She had a moral duty to young supporters, which she failed miserably in. Of course, the resignation of Byrne, along with the accompanying club statement which confesses to having let the victim and the supporters of the club down, will not be enough to satisfy everyone. A number of supporters are now keen to draw a line under the issue and concentrate on the daunting relegation battle.

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All in all, it has been a tough few weeks for Sunderland supporters. For a start, parents of young fans will be appalled that Johnson was able to continue to meet young fans after games despite the Chief Executive’s knowledge of his guilt. Fans have also been placed in a difficult position having broadly declared their support for Johnson on the assumption that he was pleading not guilty to all charges. Over the past year, they have sang his name, celebrated his goals and revelled in his continued excellent record against Newcastle. Supporters cannot be blamed for this, after all they had no knowledge of the winger’s confession and it was presumed that legal experts within the club must deem there to be enough evidence to prove his innocence. Instead, his guilt was known within the walls of the Stadium of Light and this has let the club down. However, this does not mean the Johnson affair has not left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans who now are tinged with guilt at their support for him.

Even tougher to take is the almost enforced guilt by association. Every time Sunderland play, there are now unpleasant chants directed towards the club and supporters. With all of these circulating off-field activities, criticism from fans of other clubs and both national and local journalists it could be inferred that this will impact upon the togetherness of the squad. However, this has not been the case, despite the club’s relegation fight. At 2.59 on Saturday (March 5th) if someone had offered Sunderland fans a point at St Mary’s with Norwich and Newcastle both losing, they would have been delighted. However, the 94th minute Virgil Van Dijk equaliser left Sunderland fans feeling despondent. A victory would have opened up a four point gap over relegation rivals Norwich and Newcastle, but as is the Sunderland way they squandered that chance, meaning Wearside now faces an anxious two week wait before what looks set to be the biggest Tyne-Wear derby in living memory. Victory for either side would provide great momentum and hope where as a loss could prove a fatal blow.

Despite the nature of the last minute goal being tough to swallow, there is something of a feel good factor around the club. The new signings have rejuvenated the club. After a largely positive transfer window, Allardyce spoke of getting rid of players who were “down in the dumps” including the unfancied or out of form players such as Stephen Fletcher and Danny Graham. Instead, they have been replaced with signings such as Lamine Kone, Wahbi Khazri and Jan Kirchhoff who have breathed life back into the club. Despite results continuing to be fairly moderate, there have been signs of progress including excellent performances against the two Manchester clubs, including a vital win over United. Khazri’s energy, direct approach and pace has encouraged fans which is well combined with the level headed assured style of Kirchhoff and powerful defensive capabilities of Kone, who became an instant crowd favourite after flattering Yaya Touré with a robust challenge on his debut.

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Not only this, but Sunderland have shown great character in recent weeks. After being 2-0 down at Liverpool, a late Defoe equalizer snatched a point, which was followed up by reacting well to a Manchester United leveller in the next game, before eventually going on to win in a commanding display. Even though the draw against Crystal Palace was frustrating, the late goal from Fabio Borini followed by an outpouring of raw emotion demonstrated the fighting spirit within the squad. Similar scenes came after taking the lead at St Mary’s with almost all the outfield players celebrating wildly in front of the travelling support. After the match, there were openly remorseful tweets from players apologising to fans for not holding onto the lead and dropping two points. For so long, Sunderland fans have been used to seeing teams meekly surrendering once falling behind, but the comebacks in recent weeks coupled with the fighting spirit on show have given Sunderland fans hope that the current crop of players do have the stomach for the fight. Most hearteningly, the impact of the signings has given fans hope that under the guidance of the pragmatic Sam Allardyce, if survival can be achieved there is hope that finally this cycle of relegation struggle can be broken.


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Sunderland

Sunderland must not rely on Josh Maja up front next season

Sunderland are currently lacking in striking options.

Mathew Nash

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It has been a tough week at Sunderland. The Black Cats have lost two of their top young attacking talents. Swedish forward Joel Asoro looks set for Swansea City after the two teams agreed on a fee. They also lost 16-year-old Sam Greenwood. He has agreed to join Arsenal’s youth system. It leaves Sunderland in a massive predicament in the attacking department.

Sunderland have hardly any strikers left on board, after the loan of Ashley Fletcher ended the Black Cats are very short up front. With James Vaughan and Lewis Grabban departing last season they are now stuck with just one striking option. The player in question is 19-year-old Josh Maja.

(Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images)

The Londoner played 18 times for Sunderland last season, scoring just one goal. But he is a top talent for the future and Sunderland must ensure they keep hold of him and use him in League One.


“They (Maja and Bali Mumba) will stay. They want to be Sunderland players.”

– Sunderland chairman Stewart Donald on Maja’s future


However, Sunderland cannot rely on him. The Black Cats are still hunting for new recruits and at least two new frontmen are going to be needed in order for Sunderland to fight for promotion.

Maja is a brilliant talent, but putting the pressure on him to lead the line would be a big mistake from Sunderland this season.

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Returning Duncan Watmore will be like new signing for Sunderland

Sunderland will welcome the winger back to action in the Autumn.

Mathew Nash

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Sunderland manager Jack Ross has been updating the press on the injury status of attacker Duncan Watmore.

The 24-year-old suffered a second serious knee injury last November and has not played for the Black Cats since.

Speaking to the Sunderland Echo, the Scotsman confirmed that Watmore, who took part in Sunderland’s pre-season training camp in Portugal, should be back with the first-team by ‘late September, maybe October’.

Which will no doubt be like a new signing for the Wearside club.

When the powerful and energetic Watmore burst onto the scene at Sunderland in 2015-16 he was one of the shining lights in what was an otherwise disappointing campaign from the Black Cats. His direct and vibrant style of play was exactly what Sunderland needed as they survived relegation to the Championship by just two points from local rivals Newcastle United.

(Photo credit should read LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP/Getty Images)

Since then things have just not gone to plan for the attacker.

But he is a player that fans have a lot of time for and, in League One, he has all the attributes to be a star.

His strength and pace will be a major concern for most defenders in the division and Sunderland will no doubt enjoy having him back running the channels and stretching defences.

The former England under-21 international needs some good luck. If he can stay fit this season then Sunderland’s chances of a return to the second-tier will increase almost immediately.

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Sweet irony as Lewis Grabban deal gives Sunderland better chance to sign Jason Cummings

The Scottish striker is clearly available and Sunderland should make a move.

Mathew Nash

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Nottingham Forest recently acquired Lewis Grabban from Bournemouth in a deal worth around £6 million. It is a great move for the Reds, who are getting the Championship’s second top scorer from last season in the process.

Grabban scored 20 goals in 35 games last season, finishing the campaign with a play-off final defeat with Aston Villa. But he actually scored 12 of his goals in 20 appearances for Sunderland. Grabban was one of the few bright lights at Sunderland last term. But, with Villa calling and the Black Cats doomed to relegation, the striker decided to spend the second half of the season at Villa Park – much to the chagrin of Sunderland.

But, in a sense of twisted irony, Grabban’s move to Forest could help push a striker option to Sunderland to help them in League One.

The latest arrival at the City Ground has surely pushed Jason Cummings out of the door.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Earlier in the week, the Northern Echo suggested that Cummings was on Sunderland’s radar.

Cummings, who spent time on loan at Rangers last season, will be known to Sunderland boss Jack Ross from his time in Scottish football. Cummings scored 71 goals in 150 games for Hibernian during his time at Easter Road. He was team-mates with new Sunderland recruit Dylan McGeouch in Edinburgh, which could also help in any pursuit for the player.

Sunderland are desperate for striking options, with only the club’s youngsters currently available.

Cummings struggled in the Championship but he could surely find his feet at League One level.

Grabban turned his back on Sunderland who fought a lost cause without him. Now, his latest move could see the Black Cats get the striker they need for next season.

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