Vital pre-season spell for Sunderland
An extra stone or two surrounded the midriff of Asamoah Gyan when he reported for pre-season duty at the Academy of Light.
Steve Bruce was fuming. The Ghanaian’s over-indulgence over the summer left him lagging way behind his team-mates, and prompted a brutal period of one-on-one fitness sessions with the Sunderland physios to bring him up to speed.
Even then, Gyan wasn’t genuinely fit when the Premier League got underway and with Sunderland’s patience ebbing away, the Black Cats sanctioned the striker’s get-rich-quick move to the Middle East.
But Gyan’s summer of 2011 was an extreme exception to the rule. Unlike a bygone era when pre-season was a time to shed a stone of Mallorcan lager, players invariably return to work nowadays in ship-shape condition.
Nevertheless, Sunderland’s players will still undergo a rigorous round of testing on their first day of pre-season training today, to ensure their body-fat levels have not slipped during the close season.
It’s a tiresome process, but one which has become an essential part of the process in the microscopic analysis at Premier League clubs, particularly when there’s a manager such as Sam Allardyce who holds such store by statistics.
The Sunderland squad will then embark upon the equally turgid cardio work.
For all managers attempt to disguise it these days by encouraging players to run with a ball at their feet, it still boils down to mile upon mile of hard yards.
It’s not until Sunderland’s squad fly out to Austria on Thursday for a behind-closed-doors training camp, that the proper work begins.
That is when Allardyce will really start putting his stamp on things.
Allardyce was able to mould Sunderland into a cohesive, resilient and (unlike the first half of the season) fighting-fit unit during the last four months of the campaign.
But the 61-year-old will want to avoid any fire-fighting this time around. He will want Sunderland to remain in that image from the very first whistle this season, to avoid the trials and tribulations of recent years.
Pre-season is an all-important time for Allardyce to do that, and the isolation of Austria appeals to him. His Bolton and West Ham teams both headed out to the Alps to undergo the necessary treatment to lick them into shape.
What Sunderland are lacking at the start of Allardyce’s first pre-season at the helm is any fresh faces to work with.
There will be several players on the training ground who Allardyce would like to see the back of, but none who he can fit into the jigsaw for what is (hopefully) a more convincing and stable Sunderland side.
That situation is hardly unique to Sunderland among the Premier League fraternity.
Neither is it necessarily surprising or damaging to the Black Cats’ prospects.
The transfer market is always sluggish in any summer which involves a major tournament and it has been doubly slow this year, with all asking prices going up several millions due to the riches stemming from the new television deal.
Sunderland, like many others, are having to bide their time to avoid paying ludicrously inflated fees.
But, as was expected, the market has begun to pick up over recent days and the domino effect stemming from that should see Sunderland begin to make inroads into landing Allardyce’s targets.
Certainly, Allardyce will hope to to have some signings on board by the time Sunderland open their friendly programme at Hartlepool’s Victoria Park in two weeks and two days.
That’s when those crucial on-field relationships need to begin to blossom; those double acts such as Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul’s defensive partnership which proved so resilient during the run-in.
At present though, Sunderland’s pre-season merely boils down to the fitness marathon.