In the long-awaited opening fixture of the 2019/20 League One season, Sunderland AFC will take on Oxford United at the Stadium of Light. Following the addition of several impressive players to the squad, along with some key departures, manager Jack Ross has the unenviable task of selecting his eleven players to spearhead Sunderland’s charge for automatic promotion. Here are the players that I would select for this task.
Sunderland suffered from a chronic scoring issue towards the end of last season. Much of the blame for this derives, in my opinion, from the continual dependence on lone striker formations whilst lacking the creative flair to provide them with proper service. Reverting to a traditional 4-4-2 would alleviate this issue, thus hopefully awakening a consistent scoring attitude within the squad.
Goalkeeper- Jon McLaughlin
Who else? The Scotsman was one of the only reasons why Sunderland AFC remained competitive towards the end of last year, as overall complacency across the defensive line placed extra emphasis on the man between the sticks. McLaughlin embodies the same energy as the neighbour with whom you leave a pair of house keys whilst the family goes on holiday; a steady, safe pair of hands who can be depended on when it really counts. Following interest from Championship-level clubs this summer, Sunderland’s retention of the stopper should prove incredibly valuable to their campaign.
Right Back- Conor McLaughlin
From one McLaughlin to another. The Northern-Irish fullback was one of the first signings made by Sunderland AFC this summer after a flurry of transfer activity- clearly the board listened to the pleas of my previous article. Mclaughlin hopefully provides an upgrade on the departing Adam Matthews, who never fully lived up to his Celtic pedigree, and boasts an impressive level of experience in the lower leagues of English football, accumulating a total of two-hundred appearances for Fleetwood. Such experience should be incredibly valuable to Jack Ross’ side in the coming season.
Centre Back- Jordan Willis
One of the more impressive signings made by the club this summer, Jordan Willis, formerly of Coventry City, should inject a well-needed dose of strength and confidence into a back-line which looked shaky even at the best of times last season. Willis should be a mainstay in the starting eleven for Sunderland this season, looking very impressive during his pre-season minutes.
Centre Back- Alim Ozturk
Alim Ozturk was the benefactor of an incredible redemption arc following the 2018/19 League One season. One of the first signings made by the club following relegation from the Championship, Ozturk struggled to break into the starting eleven despite the continual uncertainty at his position. Ultimately, however, the Turkish defender asserted himself, becoming one of the only bright spots in the team during the final dismal third of the season. Here, he has his chance to fully reserve his spot in the back line during this inaugural game.
Left Back- Denver Hume
The departure of Bryan Oviedo to the Danish capital leaves one of the only glaring holes remaining in this Sunderland squad. What better opportunity to introduce some younger talent into the squad? Academy graduate Denver Hume impressed during limited minutes for the side last season, providing not only defensive quality but also attacking potential by utilising his lethal pace. If Hume rise to the occasion following Oviedo’s departure, expect him to feature heavily in the starting eleven this season.
Central Midfielder- Luke O’Nien
Sweet Luke O’Nien charmed Sunderland fans almost instantly last season with his positive and contagious attitude, and had soon fully won their hearts with his energetic performances on the pitch- despite not breaking into the side immediately. Jack Ross utilised O’Nien primarily as a full-back, taking advantage of his seemingly unlimited energy, despite his natural position lying at central midfielder. O’Nien obviously brings quality to the side, and thus should be given the chance to properly flourish in a more creative, attacking role.
Central Midfielder- George Dobson
The third new signing in my ideal opening eleven, Dobson embodies the key philosophy of this side- high energy, attacking football. Arriving from Walsall, where he gained an incredibly positive reputation and League One experience, the player boasts massive quality and will inject some well needed creativity into the midfield of this team.
Sunderland hold an enviable level of depth in the centre of midfield, with players such as Max Power, Grant Leadbitter and Dylan McGeouch also vying for a first team spot. Dobson and O’Nien must therefore ensure that they continually play at their highest level to fully secure their starting positions.
Right Midfielder- Duncan Watmore
This year might be Watmore’s final chance to cement his his place in this Sunderland team. Despite being involved in the first team in varying capacities since the teams final Premier League season, constant injury has prevented the dynamic winger from fully reaching his lethal potential. Here, Watmore should be given his full opportunity to contribute to a winning season in League One.
Left Midfielder- Elliot Embleton
Academy graduate Elliot Embleton has been making waves this pre-season. The promising attacker has never been given a proper opportunity in the first team, and may leave for greener pastures if first team football isn’t provided. Embleton gets his chance to prove himself here, with competition from established starters such as Chris Maguire only exacerbating the need for immediate results.
Striker- Will Grigg
Following the departure of top goalscorer Josh Maja in January, Grigg was hailed as his successor, arriving from Wigan with a massive striking reputation- and sensational crowd chant- backing him up. So far, he has failed to provide a proper return from the investment, as a result of both a lack of creativity within the squad and his own fitness issues. Grigg needs confidence, and thus regular playing time. I have no doubts that the goals will shortly follow.
Striker- Marc McNulty
The final new signing in my ideal opening day eleven is the prolific Marc McNulty, who impressed whilst on loan to Hibernian last season. The Scotsman joins Wearside on loan this season and should hopefully should be the perfect complimentary partner for Grigg. With these two leading the line, Sunderland should have no problem finding the net.