GIVEN Sunderland were beaten in the semi-finals of the play-offs, it would be over-egging it to describe Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ first six months in charge of the club as a ‘honeymoon period’. No matter how bad the wedding, honeymoons don’t normally end in tears and despair.

Nevertheless, having replaced the unpopular Stewart Donald at the turn of the year, Louis-Dreyfus has been greeted with near-universal acclaim on Wearside. Even in the wake of missing out on a place in the Championship, his popularity has not really waned.

There are perfectly understandable reasons for that, and they stretch beyond the mere fact that he is not Donald, whose reputation had been shredded long before he finally relinquished his majority shareholding.

Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t said a lot publicly since assuming control, but what he has uttered has gone down well. He has pledged to uphold Sunderland’s traditions and promised a close relationship with the fans. He has promised to prioritise youth development and talked enthusiastically about an overhaul of the academy. He even took a thinly-disguised swipe at the former board, insisting that the days of “asset-stripping” are over.

He has also made some impressive early moves. The reshaping of Sunderland’s backroom structure began with the appointment of Kristjaan Speakman as sporting director in December, prior to confirmation of Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival, but has continued to gather pace since the turn of the year.

Steve Davison was appointed as chief operating officer in mid-January, with Lewis Dickman promoted to the role of academy manager and Stuart English head-hunted as the new head of academy coaching in mid-February.

A significant sum was spent on improving the Stadium of Light pitch, and there has also been a renewed commitment to Sunderland Ladies, culminating in the women’s team’s promotion to the Women’s Championship.

So far, so positive. But while all these developments are important building blocks in terms of transforming Sunderland’s status and fortunes in the medium to long-term, the short-term priority remains securing promotion from League One, and that is where attention has shifted since the play-off defeat.

This is a huge summer for Sunderland, and in conjunction with Lee Johnson, whose retention was never in doubt despite the Black Cats’ failure to make it to the Championship, such is the new board’s enduring faith in his abilities, Louis-Dreyfus and Speakman will have to help rebuild a squad that is currently threadbare.

The release of seven senior players was hardly unexpected, but with Denver Hume, Luke O’Nien, Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke also still to commit to new deals at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland find themselves having to pretty much sign a whole new team before the end of August.

There are two strands to that – first, coming up with the money needed to give Sunderland a competitive advantage over the rest of the clubs in League One, then second, selling a vision of the club to players who will almost certainly have alternative offers, often from clubs at a higher level than the Black Cats.

In many respects, the financial challenge is the easiest to overcome. Louis-Dreyfus has promised to continue covering the losses incurred by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and pledged to do all he can to support Johnson’s moves in the transfer market. While the salary-cap rules introduced last summer might have been scrapped, clubs in League One still have to adhere to the EFL’s salary cost management protocol, which links player-related expenditure to turnover. Those rules afford more room for manoeuvre than the blanket salary cap which restricted Sunderland’s options 12 months ago, and the club’s new rulers must do everything in their power to try to take advantage of the extra wriggle room.

“As an ownership group, we need to support it (the club) as we have over the last few months to cover the significant losses every club is experiencing due to the pandemic,” said Louis-Dreyfus, in a post-season interview with talkSPORT. “It’s our responsibility to sustain the club through this difficult period, and when it ends, we’ll be able to invest in more long-term outlets. Right now, we’re just covering losses. Football is not something where you can give guarantees. What we can guarantee is that we will try our best and work as hard as we can to increase the likelihood of success.”

As Sunderland’s recruitment team are already discovering, though, putting up the money is only part of the challenge. The Black Cats are willing to meet Wolves’ asking price for Dion Sanderson, and have held positive talks with both the defender and his representatives. Clubs in the Championship have also come calling though, so trying to re-sign the centre-half will be a test of both the Sunderland hierarchy’s negotiating skills, and their ability to sell their long-term vision of where they want to go.

The same is true when it comes to the ongoing discussions with Hume, O’Nien and McGeady, and particularly Wyke, who is known to have alternative offers from clubs in the Championship. If Sunderland can retain two or three of those players, it will send a powerful message to future targets, who might also find themselves being asked to turn down a move to the second tier. If all four walk away, however, the new regime will quickly discover that some of its lustre has disappeared.

A successful summer in the transfer market will not solve all of Sunderland’s problems, something Louis-Dreyfus and Johnson have acknowledged. It will have a powerful short-term impact though, and as crowds prepare to return in something approaching full numbers, that could be significant.