Sunderland and Derby County may be in different divisions, but both clubs are in a similar position as they head into their respective new seasons.
The Black Cats and the Rams are both fine clubs with grand traditions, but in this money-is-the-be-all-and-end-all football culture, each side has to deal with expectations that might not be realistic.
Look at Sunderland. Martin O’Neill’s appointment sent the fans at the Stadium of Light into raptures (although in truth, after the Steve Bruce era, it would have been the same reaction if Mr Blobby had been handed the reins) and a brilliant run of results soon after has raised the bar of expectation up on Wearside, but it is hard to imagine how improvements can be made on last year’s 12th-placed finish.
Ending up in the top half will be about as good as Sunderland can expect (a push for Europe is not going to happen) and with the competition for a place in the upper echelons of the division as fierce as ever, even that is not guaranteed.
As for Derby, their fifth consecutive year in the Championship is likely to end in the same way the previous four have – mid-table obscurity.
There have been times during the last three years under Nigel Clough that Derby put together some good runs of form and looked like making a sustained play-off push, but the reality is that they have always fallen short and there is nothing to suggest that this coming season will be any different.
The Derby board have shown great faith in Clough – no doubt aware that they are forcing the former Burton Albion boss to cut his cloth accordingly – and there is no suggestion his position is going to be under threat. But you would think sooner or later significant improvement will have to be made, otherwise questions are going to be asked about the club’s direction.
That said, Clough is as chipper as he has been going into a new season, excited about having a fully fit squad to choose from and challenging his players to use the match against Sunderland at Pride Park, just days before Derby kick off their season with a League Cup tie at Scunthorpe, to stake a claim for a starting berth.
Whatever team Clough picks, they are 23/10 to win the match, with the Black Cats at even money and the draw at 19/10, and it is the latter I am leaning towards.
My reasoning? Well, Sunderland have had a mixed pre-season and their squad looks unbalanced and light of attacking players. Nicklas Bendtner isn’t going to make his loan move permanent and O’Neill is short of striking options – which is perhaps why he is reportedly about to pay way over the odds for Wolves front man Steven Fletcher. For the trip to Derby, O’Neill is also without South Korean Olympian Ji-Dong-won, while Stephane Sessegnon is extremely doubtful and the even-money offering just doesn’t appeal.
I’m not overly keen on Derby either: County have themselves had an up and down pre-season, with two wins, a loss and a draw against very mediocre, lower league opposition and I’m far from convinced that the Rams are anything other than a lower mid-table Championship side.
So by process of elimination, the draw at 19/10 is the safest play here.
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