WITH the dust beginning to settle on Sunderland’s play-off semi-final defeat, thoughts are turning to what will be a busy summer at the Stadium of Light. What should head coach Lee Johnson’s key priorities be ahead of the start of next season – and what can he do to ensure the Black Cats’ fourth successive campaign in League One finally ends in promotion?


Johnson’s first priority will be to pick through Sunderland’s current squad and assess who he wants to retain on a new deal – with so many players due to become free agents, it will not be a simple task.

It will have to be completed quickly though, with clubs taking part in the play-offs having just four days from the completion of their final fixture to submit their released and retained lists to the EFL. Negotiations do not have to be completed in this timeframe, but by the end of tomorrow, the Black Cats will have to have provided an indication of who will be offered new deals and who will definitely be departing.

Fifteen Sunderland players are due to see their current contracts come to an end next month – Lee Burge, Remi Matthews, Anthony Patterson, Luke O’Nien, Conor McLaughlin, Brandon Taylor, Denver Hume, Callum McFadzean, Max Power, Josh Scowen, Grant Leadbitter, Chris Maguire, Aiden McGeady, Charlie Wyke and Benji Kimpioka.

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A handful have clauses that would enable their deals to be extended if all parties agree, but the fact that ten of those players were involved in Saturday’s play-off second leg underlines the scale of the upheaval that is set to take place. Throw in Dion Sanderson and Jordan Jones, who will not be returning following the end of their loan deals, and an entire side could be heading through the exit door.

Recruiting replacements will be a task that runs throughout the next three months, and while Johnson has already conceded that budgets are likely to be reduced, he has to find a way of strengthening Sunderland’s squad with limited resources. Other clubs have managed to do that – it is time for the Black Cats to prove they can box clever with their recruitment.


While Johnson will want to add a core of permanent signings to his squad, the last 12 months have highlighted just how important a smattering of astute loan additions can be when a club is trying to get out of League One.

Sanderson was one of the signings of the season on Wearside – Sunderland might well have made it over the line had his campaign not been prematurely curtailed because of injury – but the Black Cats were not the only club to benefit from a targeted use of the loan market.

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Johnson used his post-match interviews on Saturday to flag up the importance of Lincoln’s loan signings – the Imps recruited Alex Palmer and Callum Morton on loan from West Brom, Timothy Eyoma on loan from Tottenham, Morgan Rogers on loan from Manchester City and Brennan Johnson on a temporary deal from Nottingham Forest – and he clearly feels this is an avenue Sunderland have not adequately exploited in the past.

Filling your squad with loan signings comes with risks attached, especially when it comes to building morale and creating a sense of shared purpose. However, given Sunderland’s size and the experience players can gain from playing in front of a big crowd at the Stadium of Light, the Black Cats should have a competitive advantage over the vast majority of their League One rivals if they are attempting to persuade Premier League clubs to send talented youngsters into the third tier.

It might be that Johnson has to wait until later in the transfer window to be able to fully exploit that, but the opportunities are out there.


There are times when flexibility can be advantageous. There have also been times this season when injury issues forced Johnson to change tack and make decisions he might otherwise have avoided.

Nevertheless, far too often over the course of the last six months, the Sunderland head coach has made radical changes to his formation, tactics and personnel. Four at the back, three at the back, a back five. Lynden Gooch as a number ten, then as a right-back. Max Power at central midfield, right-back and right-sided centre-half, occasionally all in the same game.

The summer break gives Johnson the opportunity to devise a clear tactical plan and recruit players who suit it. Earlier in the season, he hinted that, in an ideal world, he would like to play in a 4-3-3 formation with wide forwards capable of tucking infield to support a central striker. He didn’t play that system for much of the play-offs, but perhaps he felt his hand was forced.

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That isn’t the case anymore, so it is imperative that Johnson draws up a blueprint he believes in, and sticks to it. Getting the best out of League One players isn’t necessarily rocket science. The teams that do best in the third tier tend to be the ones that keep things relatively simple and ask players to stick to doing what they are best at.


Previous Sunderland managers have found that the cupboard has been bare when it has come to trying to promote players from within academy. It isn’t too long ago that the Black Cats’ youth teams went through an entire season without winning a single game.

Things have improved since then though, with Sunderland’s Under-23s reaching the play-off final in Division Two of Premier League 2. A number of youngsters have made significant strides this season – the time has come for Johnson to promote them to the first-team squad in pre-season and see if they are capable of handling the step up to the senior side.

Ollie Younger and Josh Hawkes have spent some time in and around the first-team squad already, while Stephen Wearne is also regarded as a bright prospect.

Then, of course, there is Elliot Embleton.

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The midfielder is gearing up to play in the play-off final with Blackpool, but is due to return to Wearside this summer, having signed a new deal prior to moving to Bloomfield Road on loan. In hindsight, letting him go was a mistake. Reintegrating him into Sunderland’s first-team squad should be a key priority this summer.


The video that circulated on Saturday night showing Sunderland supporters hurling abuse at Johnson outside the Stadium of Light highlighted the fact that emotions remain raw. Yes, there was an upsurge in optimism when Kyril Louis-Dreyfus completed his takeover, but Sunderland fans are hurting after another failure to win promotion.

With coronavirus regulations easing, Johnson and the rest of the Black Cats hierarchy have to redouble their efforts to get the fanbase back on board. The head coach should be pencilling in a few appearances at supporters’ club branches and social clubs, while it would also be useful for Louis-Dreyfus and sporting director Kristjaan Speakman to begin communicating their key messages via the local press.

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There needs to be a sense that everyone is moving forward together. The last few years have created some deep fractures – it is imperative they are repaired.