Sunderland are back in the Championship, and now that the fixtures have been released, fans will have already started picking the key dates. The Black Cats’ return to the second tier sees them face Coventry City at the Stadium of Light in a televised match at the end of July and culminates with an away day at Preston North End in early May next year.
But aside from those bookend matches, there are crucial games – some obvious, some less so – that could have a big impact on the club’s season. After four tilts to promotion from League One, next season is set to have a very different feel, with only the biggest optimists seriously expecting Sunderland to mount a challenge this term.
Above all, they need to establish themselves in the second tier and ensure there is no return to the dark days of League One. Our Sunderland AFC writer James Hunter looks at some of the games that could have a major impact on the campaign.
READ MORE: The full list of Sunderland’s 2022-23 Championship fixtures with Coventry at home opening weekend
Coventry City (h), July 31
Sunderland’s return to the Championship will be shown live on Sky, and a strong start to life in the second tier is essential. The Black Cats are building a division and demonstrating that they can compete from the start will be crucial for their morale.
The fact that they have a home game to start is a bonus and, televised game or not, there will be an exceptional crowd at the Stadium of Light. Mark Robins’ Coventry finished 12th in the Championship last season, and this game will be a useful barometer of the standard Sunderland will need to achieve if they return to this division.
Norwich City (h), August 27
The first really big test for Sunderland will see them face Norwich City at the Stadium of Light, and it will pit them against another side returning to the Championship – in the case of the Canaries, however, it’s a step backwards as Dean’s side Smith was relegated from the Premier League last season. Sunderland will be operating on an increased budget this season after promotion, but financially they will be kicked out of the water by a Norwich side brimming with Premier League money and a parachute payment.
The difference in the quality of the teams will give Sunderland an early idea of the gap they will need to close before they are ready to compete for promotion. The game will also have an added advantage as it pits Alex Neil against one of his former clubs.
Middlesbrough (a), September 3
Local Derby? No. It may be local, but it’s not the derby.
Either way, the Tees-Wear game is one of those games Sunderland fans will be looking for – not least because there are some familiar faces on Teesside in former Sunderland men Paddy McNair and Duncan Watmore. Sunderland travel to the Riverside in early September and it will be a test game for the Black Cats against a Boro side who failed to reach the play-offs last season.
Reading (a), September 14
Sunderland’s first priority this season must be to gain a foothold in the Championship and ensure they don’t suffer the same fate as Peterborough who made an instant return to League One. That means the Black Cats will have to beat the teams at the bottom of the table, and Reading finished fourth last season – and would have done so even without the six-point deduction for breaching financial regulations.
The glitzy games against the teams at the top of the table will get the most attention, but it’s the gritty games at the bottom that will be crucial for Sunderland to establish themselves this season.
Town of Luton (a), October 29
The budget is a good guide to likely performance, but it’s only a guide. Nathan Jones’ Luton demonstrated this last season as, despite having one of the lowest budgets in the division, they proved that a little can go a long way by reaching the play-offs.
Sunderland will be looking to produce a similar feat this season, and when they travel to Kenilworth Road at the end of October, it will be their chance to take on a side who have already shown what can be achieved on a ( relative) minimal.
Birmingham City (a), November 12
This is where Sunderland sign the month-long break which has been built into the season to host the World Cup in Qatar. Everyone knows that an international break can feel like an eternity if a team jumps into it after a loss, so imagine how long it will take when the season takes a four-week break!
A win at St Andrew’s would at least mean Sunderland would enter this break in style, and the fact that they face a Blues side who finished fifth last season gives them a decent chance of securing the victory they need.
West Bromwich Albion (h), December 12
Continuing on from the above, this is Sunderland’s first game after the World Cup interlude. In many ways, this will feel like starting the season all over again, so it’s important that they get going.
The return of former Sunderland boss Steve Bruce, now in charge of the Baggies, to the Stadium of Light should add to the mood.
Blackburn Rovers (h), December 26
Festive fixtures are always a highlight, and Sunderland’s Boxing Day clash with Blackburn will draw huge crowds to the Stadium of Light. Blackburn finished eighth last season, failing to make the play-offs, with Tony Mowbray leaving in the summer to be replaced as manager by former Newcastle striker Jon Dahl Tomasson.
It will be a stern test for Sunderland over the Christmas period, but by then they should have the measure of the division.
Millwall (a), February 4
The first game after the January transfer deadline, so at this point Alex Neil will know exactly what he has to work with for the rest of the campaign. Any gaps exposed in the first half of the campaign, or gaps left unaddressed this summer, should have been addressed by this point and fans will be looking to see signs of progress.
Of course, the newcomers will continue to make their bed, but at least we will know what form the team is in for the last three months of the season.
Preston North End (a), May 6
Sunderland’s final day game sees them take on another of Neil’s former Preston sides at Deepdale. If the Black Cats are struggling and things go wrong, this game could be pivotal.
But let’s look on the bright side, let’s hope Sunderland head to Lancashire safely with the sole aim of getting the best possible finish. If it’s a drama-free day, it’ll be fine.