SINCE the start of last season, Sunderland have acquired a new owner, appointed a new sporting director and head coach, overhauled their entire backroom set-up and radically reshaped their playing squad. Yet one key thing has remained unchanged.

For the fourth successive season, the Black Cats find themselves battling to try to get out of League One.

Changing that is the key ambition for the next nine months.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has made a number of positive improvements since replacing Stewart Donald as majority shareholder at the turn of the year, but even he accepts they will ultimately count for very little if Sunderland can't extricate themselves from the third tier.

Having missed out on three separate occasions – twice via the play-offs and once on a points-per-game basis in a Covid-curtailed campaign – promotion is the be all and end all this term.

Sunderland should not be languishing in League One, but the reality is that that is where they find themselves, and as they have learned to their cost in the last three seasons, they have no divine right to make it back to the Championship.

They are pitted against plenty of viable challengers – including Rotherham, Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe, who will be looking to bounce back following last season’s relegation from the second tier, to Ipswich, Portsmouth and Wigan, who have made significant investments this summer in an attempt to win promotion.

Sunderland’s own summer spending has been somewhat restrained, although there is still time for Johnson to make further additions before the transfer window closes, particularly when posited against the large number of departures that were sanctioned at the end of last season.

Losing the likes of Conor McLaughlin, Josh Scowen, Max Power, Grant Leadbitter and Chris Maguire made financial sense, but it created a series of significant gaps in the squad. Those gaps increased when Charlie Wyke turned down the offer of a new deal at the Stadium of Light and Dion Sanderson opted for a move to the Championship rather than spend another season in League One.

Re-signing Aiden McGeady and Luke O’Nien prevented the squad from becoming even more threadbare – the former in particular remains one of the most talented players in League One despite his advancing years – and Johnson has made some astute additions.

Alex Pritchard should be a useful addition once the effects of his Covid infection fully wear off, while Corry Evans was an established Championship force with Blackburn last season. Callum Doyle has no real senior experience under his belt, but on the evidence of his pre-season performances, the Manchester City centre-half could be something of a revelation. Given that he is just 17, it would be unfair to expect too much of the youngster. Even so, Doyle has already shown enough to suggest his capture could be something of a coup.

Of those who remain from last season, Ross Stewart will be carrying a considerable goalscoring burden on his shoulders following the departure of Wyke. The Scot never really had a chance to prove his worth last term – without Wyke to keep him on the sidelines, he needs to find his feet.

Might this also be the season when Sunderland’s youngsters finally get a chance to shine too?

Elliot Embleton helped Blackpool win promotion last season – can he have a similarly positive impact back in red-and-white? Jack Diamond and Dan Neil have figured prominently in pre-season – does Johnson trust them sufficiently to keep them in the team when the real business begins?

Away from the demands of the league, Sunderland will be defending the Papa John’s Trophy, but having been to Wembley on three occasions in the last three years, no-one will complain if they miss out on another trip to the national stadium, provided they finish in the top two.

Silverware would be nice, but a place in the Championship in the Black Cats’ goal.