The unfinished business of the season, the FA Cup Final, does not directly affect us (though Chelsea and Portsmouth fans are lined up to preview the game here). Fabio Capello’s selection today for South Africa will be of interest, of course, as will activity in the transfer market. But first we need to reflect on the season just ended and our prospects for the next one.
Colin Randallintroduces a period of reckoning for Sunderland fans …
Annual report, end of term report, season review. Call it what you will, it is time to take a measured, critical look back on a season that began for Sunderland AFC with a level of promise unknown even when we were, to our own surprise, finishing seventh top and then seventh top again under Peter Reid.
Over the next two weeks or so, Salut! Sunderland will adopt headmasterly tones and hand out its own report cards. But the task is not confined to the boss’s study; there are staffroom volunteers, too. There will be at least three reports and maybe more. If anyone wishes to contribute more than a comment or two, they should contact me at the e-mail address to the left.
To say that our early season promise was not, in the event, fulfilled might have been a harsh verdict after our much more comfortable run of final games. But the return to sloppy, undisciplined, quality-free football in the last hour of our last game, at Wolves, leaves such a sour taste in the mouth that it seems to be putting it almost too kindly.
The Molineux shocker certainly brought back sharp memories of the midseason slump. Let us be honest: no good team would have gone from 5pm on Nov 21 to 7.45pm on March 9 without winning against anyone other than a bunch of non-leaguers, destined to finish in the bottom half of the Blue Square Premier, in the cup. We were occasionally unlucky but more commonly ragged and clueless, deserving of no better.
Without Darren Bent’s outstanding season of goalscoring (and many thanks to of “addick-tedKevin”, whose Flickr pages yielded the brilliant image), and without the sheer awfulness of most of the teams beneath us (teams, incidentally, that we struggled to beat), Sunderland would have entered the last couple of games in a nervous state. As it was, a pathetic tally of 31 points was enough to ensure survival this season; that’s a long way behind our 44, but it is galling to think that we could with a shred of consistency have extended our eventual cruise to safety and achieved midtable respectability.
Even during the winless run, it was obvious we had a number of talented individuals and we must acknowledge the positive signals.
Add to Bent’s momentous contributions the goalkeeping heroics of a revitalised Craig Gordon, the renaissance of Steed Malbranque as a midfielder with elegant touches and commendable tenacity and the sterling, though card-prone defensive work of Michael Turner and, when fit (a serious problem), John Mensah and you realise we have players capable of making a greater impact on the division. Fraizer Campbell ended the season brightly after his unimpressive start and Jordan Henderson is developing into a fine product of the youth scheme.
But the form of Lorik Cana, Kenwyne Jones and Lee Cattermole was unpredictable, Andy Reid’s slimline excellence of early season disintegrated in an injury-wrecked second half of the season and we are left having still to see the the best of Paulo da Silva, or indeed very much of him at all. Alan Hutton’s loan spell confirmed him as a lively attacking full back, though with some defensive question marks, and David Meyler deserves more chances once he recovers from his unfortunate injury.
Among regulars I have not mentioned, there are players we could regard as useful squad members but – and tell me if this is unfair – no one whose departure would cause great loss of sleep. Steve Bruce’s squad needs to be strengthened in most areas before it can challenge, as a decent target for next season, for our first top eight placing since 2001.
There is plenty of reason to approach the 2010-11 season and beyond with confidence. Under the ownership of Ellis Short, the club currently has financial clout. We can compete, if not for the best players around, for the next best, those who cannot aspire to the Premier League elite but can help us realise the dream of establishing ourselves as top-half club.
There are geographical as well as football reasons to explain some of our past failures to recruit the players we wanted. They, or their wives or girlfriends, preferred to be in or nearer London.
The appeal of the North West is less easy to understand, except that clubs there have outperformed us in recent times. Our image as a yo-yo club, which is what we’ve been throughout my own half century of support, has deterred good players, more so than ever before in the past dozen years or so.
We can do little about the geography, save for pointing out the many glories of the North East and the speed of modern communications. People do make choices about where to live and work and the footballer who turns up his nose at Wearside is not so different from the Wearsider who heads south or emigrates, thinking life will be better elsewhere.
But by establishing ourselves as a club that no longer approaches each new season with a sense of apprehension about battles at the wrong end of the table, we should still prove attractive, with the levels of wages and ambition we can offer, to players of sufficiently high quality to give Bruce something to work on.
I’ll end the first of these Salut! Sunderland Report Cards by repeating the summing up I gave in response to questions from the Irish Examiner newspaper:
High point of the season :
There were three: deservedly beating both Liverpool and Arsenal at home, in the case of the Gunners without even the need for a beachball’s righteous intervention, and then – sad as this seems after all we’ve spent – making sure of Premier football next season and ensuring nothing lower than 13th place.
Low point of the season
One, but it lasted a long time, from November 22 (the day after we beat Arsenal) to March 8 (the day before we beat Bolton) when the only win we managed was against Barrow in the FA Cup 3rd round. After all the turmoil of recent years, it was a painfully familiar run that brought fears of yet another relegation.
Player of the year
Simply no other contender. Darren Bent’s goals have made the difference between a relegation scrap and the prospect of midtable respectability. In a team that has played as badly as we have, so often, his 24 Premier goals are little short of sensational. Critics say he does little else, which rather ignores the main role of a striker.
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