FOOTBALLING wisdom suggests that a relegated team's best chance of bouncing back comes in the first season after its demotion.

There hadn't been much footballing wisdom displayed on Wearside prior to Mick McCarthy's arrival last March, so it was perhaps inevitable that his first season in charge would end in the glorious failure of May's play-off penalty shoot-out defeat to Crystal Palace.

But, while most commentators are insisting that Sunderland's best chance of a Premiership return has come and gone, the Black Cats boss will go into the new campaign quietly confident of mounting another promotion charge.

When Jeff Whitley tamely lobbed his spot-kick at Nico Vaesen, McCarthy was left with a stark choice.

He could have regrouped and gone again with an aging squad that struggled to last the pace of an arduous 46-game league season, or he could have cleared the decks and invested in a side with Coca-Cola League sensibilities but Premiership ambitions.

In many ways, the former would have been the easy choice. McCarthy was in charge of experienced professionals that he trusted and, while they hadn't brought top-flight football back to the Stadium of Light, they had gone pretty close.

Opting for change carried risks. Financial restraints meant McCarthy would only be able to sign inexperienced youngsters, unproven at Championship level, and in releasing some of the clubs biggest names he would have to disappoint players who had helped Sunderland through some of the most traumatic months in the club's history.

McCarthy has hardly become noted as a risk-taker during his managerial career but, after ditching McAteer, Babb, Bjorklund and Thirlwell, this season represents his biggest gamble since refusing to back down over the Roy Keane fiasco in the Far East two years ago.

His additions arrive with plenty of promise but, in the hurly-burly of the Championship, they will have to learn quickly if the Black Cats are not to ruin their chances in the opening months of the campaign.

Stephen Caldwell has made the short trip from North-East neighbours Newcastle, but local rivalries will be quickly forgotten if he can forge a profitable relationship with new club captain Gary Breen.

The Black Cats' defence has also been strengthened by the signing of former Manchester United youngster Mark Lynch and, with Julio Arca, George McCartney and Stephen Wright still on board, Sunderland should have one of the meanest rearguards in the division.

The midfield might have lost the abrasive attributes of McAteer and Thirlwell, but Carl Robinson has turned his loan move from Portsmouth into a permanent one and McCarthy has signed two of the most highly-rated youngsters from last season's Third Division.

Liam Lawrence arrives from Mansfield with a reputation for scoring goals, while Dean Whitehead has looked neat and tidy in pre-season since moving north from Oxford.

Whitley will continue to be a feisty influence and John Oster and Sean Thornton should continue to create chances for the Sunderland frontline.

The only problem is identifying who will convert those chances into goals.

With Darren Byfield and Tommy Smith having moved on, Sunderland's promotion hopes look like resting on the broad shoulders of Kevin Kyle.

The Scotland international caused no end of problems to assorted defences last term, but his final tally of 16 goals suggests he is not yet the finished article that McCarthy needs him to be.

Marcus Stewart will lend valuable support but, at the age of 31, the former Ipswich striker has lost the pace that saw the Black Cats splash out more than £3m to bring him to Wearside in 2002.

Beyond that, McCarthy is relying on 20-year-old Stephen Elliott - a summer signing from Manchester City - and 19-year-olds Chris Brown and Neil Teggart.

They might have been linked with more strikers than Arthur Scargill this summer, but Sunderland have so far been unable to attract the kind of frontman who can guarantee 20 goals a season.

The absence of those goals could prove crucial.

Footballing wisdom isn't always right but, if don't put the ball in the back of the net, you certainly won't win promotion.

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