Pickford & Watmore shine but Allardyce must strengthen Sunderland

As Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce reflects on how to avoid yet another season blighted by the threat of relegation, he can take early encouragement from the international exploits of two players who do not usually make his starting XI.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and striker Duncan Watmore both made important contributions as England Under 21s won the Toulon Tournament, beating the hosts France 2-1 in the final last Sunday.

Pickford and Watmore, both 22 but eligible for inclusion in the squad because they were under 21 when the current qualifying period began, are the brightest young prospects in Allardyce's squad.

After making an outstanding Premier League debut in a 3-1 FA Cup defeat at Arsenal in January, Pickford had to settle for only two league appearances in the second half of the season as Vito Mannone maintained his impressive return to form that established him as Allardyce's first choice.

Watmore enjoyed more playing time but his season was marred by a two-month injury layoff after which Allardyce used him chiefly as a substitute, able to make a late impact on games. Both men will rightly expect more opportunities when Premier League action resumes in August and could be tempted by loan interest from other clubs if they again find themselves confined to the bench.

Having emulated the escape acts achieved in successive seasons by his three predecessors -- Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat -- Allardyce is anxious not to follow the failure of each of them to carry that limited measure of success into the following season.

He says the first five games of the new season will be crucial to avoiding months spent at the wrong end of the table. Sunderland have not won a league game in August since 2010. Darren Bent and Jordan Henderson were still players and Steve Bruce the manager when the club last won their league opener game, back in 2009.

Most of the subsequent seasons have followed a familiar pattern of dull football, disappointment and menace, necessitating a late revival to keep clear of the bottom three. Allardyce's challenge is to use the summer wisely, strengthen his squad and maintain the high level of confidence on which his players were able to end last season, beating Chelsea and Everton in the final homes games to cap a run of 11 games with only one defeat.

With an average home attendance of 43,000, higher than all but five other Premier League clubs, Sunderland should realistically be able to aim for regular finishes in the top half. Allardyce's transfer dealings in the January window were impressive -- Lamine Kone, Jan Kirchhoff and Wahbi Khazri all played massive roles in the battle for survival -- and the reported pursuit of West Ham striker Diafra Sakho suggests he is already thinking on the right lines.

A new chief executive, Martin Bain, starts work next month under orders from Sunderland owner Ellis Short to transform the club's finances after a sharp jump in operating losses. So Allardyce may have to fight for the right to spend as liberally as he would like. Short has been badly let down by the transfer follies of successive managers but seems likely to back Allardyce with the resources needed to end the annual flirtation with a costly relegation.

It may help a little that a number of players with little or no chance of making the first team regularly are out of contract. Defender Valentin Roberge has already left and will be followed by others, including veteran centre-back Wes Brown and attackers Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher.

Further departures seem inevitable, bringing useful cuts to the wage bill. It remains to be seen whether there is a Sunderland future for Jeremain Lens, talented but rarely used last season amid doubts about his commitment to the club once his old boss and fellow Dutchman Advocaat left in October. Allardyce will hope to arrange permanent exits for others, including midfielders Jordi Gomez and Liam Bridcutt.

If Pickford and Watmore should figure in the manager's future planning, new blood is needed in all outfield areas, especially at full-back, though most supporters would probably welcome a permanent deal for DeAndre Yedlin. His loan period from Tottenham began poorly but ended on a high note, as observed by his United States international manager Jurgen Klinsmann.

Whatever changes are made, it is safe to predict Sunderland will not follow in Leicester City's footsteps and complete an extraordinary transformation from lost cause to champions a year later. But with the shrewd business decisions he has shown himself capable of making, Allardyce is better placed than Di Canio, Poyet or Advocaat to bring smiles to Wearside faces a lot sooner than during what has become the season-saving excitement of April and May.