ANTON Ferdinand believes that Sunderland can follow Fulham’s lead and transform themselves from relegation strugglers to Europa League qualifiers in the space of 12 months.
The Black Cats only avoided relegation from the Premier League by two points last month but it has done nothing to dampen confidence at the Stadium of Light. And with Steve Bruce installed as manager and billionaire Ellis Short as owner since then, defender Ferdinand is starting to dream of Europe.
On the face of it, a top-seven finish might seem fanciful but the teams outside an increasingly isolated six-team elite are so much of a muchness that it can not be discounted if they trade well this summer. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham escaped the drop by only three goals’ difference in 2008, but rebuilt to finish seventh last term.
Asked if there was any reason why the Wearsiders could not do likewise, Ferdinand’s response was extremely positive. “Not at all,” he replied. “It depends what players the manager buys. That’s going to be a key factor. If we buy right, there’s every chance of fighting for Europe.
“If Fulham can do it, we can. It’s not unrealistic to do it next season. We’ve got this season
out of the way, now it’s time to chillax and prepare for next year.”
The former West Ham United defender believes Sunderland must make the most of the fact local rivals Newcastle United and Middlesbrough will both be playing in next season’s Championship, something which will be underlined this morning when the Premier League’s 2009-10 fixture list is printed and Sunderland’s is the only North East name on it.
“There is great potential here, it’s a massive club and it’s even bigger now we’re the only North East club in the big time,” he argued. “But we’ve got to make sure we’re not in the situation we were in this year next year.
“Hopefully that won’t happen.”
The cynics will point out that there is a familiar – and some might therefore say hollow – ring to Ferdinand’s words. This time last year the Wearsiders had a young, highly-rated manager with a generous transfer budget and the talk was of kicking on from a relegation battle to qualify for Europe.
As recently as March, Kieran Richardson was expressing the hope his team could make it into last season’s top seven.
When asked what Sunderland needed to do to ensure these latest words were backed up by actions, Ferdinand was non-committal.
“That’s not my place to say,” he said. “The people who need to be answering that are the chairman and the new manager. They’re the ones who are going to make the decisions and hopefully they’re the right ones.
“But there will definitely be new faces. The new man will come aboard, Mr Short, and we’ll see what happens.”
They promise to be exciting times ahead for Sunderland, and despite persistent transfer talk to the contrary, Ferdinand wants to be part of it. “I hope I will be,” he said. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t, but football’s football and you never know.”
The draw for this summer’s Amsterdam Tournament has seen Sunderland avoid hosts Ajax. The Black Cats will open the pre-season competition with a game against Benfica at 7pm on July 24.
Their second match of the four-team tournament is 48 hours later against Atlético Madrid.
Meanwhile, new Hibernian boss John Hughes is reportedly interested in working with Anthony Stokes for a second time.
The striker was loaned to Hughes’ Falkirk before signing for the Black Cats, and his 14 goals in 16 Scottish Premier League games were instrumental in his £2m Wearside move. Stokes’ last league start for Sunderland was in March 2008, though. He spent most of last season on loan at Sheffield United and Crystal Palace.