The Championship has changed a lot since Sunderland last played in English football’s second tier.
And I mean a LOT.
It had changed a lot during the six years Newcastle United spent in the Premier League from 2010.
And the division came as a shock to the system for Rafa Benitez’s side last season.
Newcastle were caught off-guard by the intensity and physicality of the division a year ago when they kicked off their campaign in the Championship on a Friday night at Craven Cottage.
They lost. And they lost again to Huddersfield Town a few days later.
Yet nine months later, they went up as champions. But they were nine very long, and very tough, months.
Here’s what I learnt in the Championship last season:
1. IT’S SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
The Championship is relentless.
And teams are bigger, stronger and fitter than before.
There are good and bad teams in the Championship. And everything in between. But every one of them can give your club a game.
You need height in your team and you need experience of the division.
Footballing ability will only take you so far in the Championship. And it will only really come to the fore if you’re prepared to physically match your opponent.
If you can do that, maybe you can play some football. But time and space on the ball will be at a premium.
And, crucially, the division is no place for a player whose commitment is less than total. It just isn’t.
2. A 20-GOAL STRIKER IS NEEDED
Newcastle had Dwight Gayle. And Sunderland need a striker capable of scoring 20-plus goals in the division.
A lot of teams struggle to score against the better defences. They pass up chance after chance after chance.
The Magpies often had less possession than the opposition last season – but still ended up taking all three points.
Gayle – who ended the season with 23 goals – only needed one chance.
If you can score goals, you should do OK. Just having a decent goalscorer puts you in the top bracket in the division.
There were teams in the Championship last season that could have the ball for close to 90 minutes but not score against a committed, disciplined and well-organised defence.
3. IT’S A TALL ORDER
And that’s the other thing. You need to be able to defend.
Benitez brought in Grant Hanley – who can head the ball afternoon – as a specialist Championship defender.
In the end, he didn’t play much. But Benitez was right to recognise that the division throws up a different challenge.
There will be games this season when Sunderland will have to defend, defend and defend. That’s the nature of the division.
Teams will go direct and test their resolve. They’ll have to head, kick and block ball after ball into the box.
And those spells in games, when Sunderland are up against it, will go a long way to deciding their fate.
Total commitment is needed.
4. GET USED TO BEING A BIG SCALP
Sunderland will be a big scalp.
It was the same for Newcastle United.
Championship teams – and fans – seem to relish facing newly-relegated Premier League teams, especially the bigger ones.
And that makes it harder to succeed in the division.
Time and again, Newcastle players said opposition teams treated games against them as “cup finals”. And they were right.
The crowds away from home were bigger than normal, and so, too, was the effort on the pitch.
Teams will also relish playing at the Stadium of Light.
It’s something else that Sunderland must get used to – and quickly.
5. CONSISTENCY IS KEY
Newcastle lost a lot of games in the Championship.
They were beaten 10 times. The key, however, is to recover quickly. Don’t lose more than a couple of games in a row. And don’t get on a losing run.
If you lose, get over it and get on with it.
The teams which consistently pick up points over the course of the season are the ones which will challenge for automatic promotion.
Fulham played some stunning football last season.
They twice beat Newcastle, but they, over the course of the season, were inconsistent.
Brighton, by contrast, were relentless. The picked up point after point after point.
And Newcastle, for all their ups and downs, didn’t get stuck in a rut.
6. UNITY IS EVERYTHING
Finally, above all else, it’s about the team.
Newcastle weren’t really united in the Premier League – and that’s why they went down.
It had been coming.
Last summer, Benitez did what he could to move on those less-than-committed players and replace them with signings willing to put their bodies on the line for the club.
Moussa Sissoko, for example, was kept well away from Benitez’s Championship team as he waited on a big-money move out of the club.
That was easier said than done, but it worked.
In a short space of time, he moulded them into a competitive team.
If you don’t have a tight-knit group willing to fight for each other, you’ve got little or no chance of getting out of the Championship.