It has long been an oft-uttered cliche, but football is indeed a 'funny old game'. That is why that, even following such an utterly demoralizing and wretched few months, I think we can sift through the disappointment and see some genuine reasons to look back on this season as being at least in some part a successful one, albeit not a conclusively progressive one.
Let me start by saying the way this season has fizzled out has left me just as frustrated as anyone. I have criticisms, and have expressed criticisms on this site over the course of the season, of the manager, the chairman, the player of the year in waiting, and even, at times, us fans. Perhaps, actually no, undoubtedly, further condemnations of mistakes I feel have been made by the club this season will follow here sooner rather than later, but not this week. This week I am choosing to be positive, and inviting you to join me. Some may conclude that I am doing no more than desperately clutching at straws, and that is your prerogative. So with that said and done, lets look for those elusive positives to emerge from this season of disappointment.
1. Premier League Consolidation.
OK, so it isn't the most glamorous or exciting of things, but the fact is that consolidating and maintaining our Premier League status is the very top priority for the football club. There is no shame in it considering it's a policy shared by the majority of clubs in the division. It is crucial to everything and forms the platform upon which every single one of aspirations are built. A bad season is a bad season, an irritant. It can be absorbed and put right. But losing our Premier League status is a disaster. Like everyone else, mere consolidation was the very minimum of my hopes and expectations for this season, but given the context of what has happened, expectations must, begrudgingly, be adjusted.
For those of you insisting that consolidation alone is not enough and we have a right to demand and expect top ten, I think you need to get real. The injury situation will cause endless debate over just how much it has affected our performance, but as it stands right now we are four points from eighth position and I refuse to believe that even the most vehement of detractors to the injury "excuse" can claim they have had so little affect that they have not cost us a mere four points.
Even if we to choose, for arguments sake, to entirely dismiss injuries as a contributing factor in our poor second half performance this season, there is still the Darren Bent situation to factor in. Back in August, this team was built around Bent and rightly so. He was our talisman and the spearhead of our attack. Gyan, although a big money signing, was not brought in to carry the team this season, and nor would it have been fair to have expected him to. Again, debate will rage on about whether we could and should have replaced him, but how anyone expects us to replace a proven twenty-goal striker half way through the season and seamlessly transition him into Bent's role as the talismanic cutting edge of the side is entirely beyond me. Bruce looked at what was available, took a gamble, and it didn't work out. That is sometimes the way it goes, but replacing Bent with an expensive panic-buy solution would have been just as big a gamble and who is to say that would have yielded any better results? It is all too easy to condemn a gamble with the benefit of hindsight after it has lost.
So surely with a combination of the injuries and Darren Bent's abDICKation, we can forgive the lads missing out on a measly 4 or 5 points, and probably a fair few more on top of that. Surely expectations for the rest of the season should have been adjusted and managed? When a boxer takes a bit hit on the chin and is reeling on the ropes, his immediate goal changes to making sure that, by hook or by crook, he survives the round and gains an opportunity to pull himself together and come back fighting. We are no different really. We were hit with a huge blow which could have easily knocked us out clean, but we took it, and although rocking we have survived the round. In previous years, and under previous leadership, we would have undoubtedly buckled under the vitriol of the crowd and adversity and dropped to the canvas, but not this time. Job done, for now.
2. Changing Perceptions and Shedding Stigmas
Lets face it, in terms of Premier League football, Sunderland have not enjoyed a good reputation. Three relegations, three further flirtations with the drop, a couple of record low points tallies thrown in for good measure. Whether we like it or not, the outward perception of our club has needed to be changed and it is a change that can not happen over night. Reputations are built, not created, and sometimes before a new reputation can be built an old one must be dismantled first. This is most certainly the case with Sunderland. Our reputation as a yo-yo club has just about gone now as we have secured a fifth successive season of Premier League football, and that is in itself progress.
But this season we have also made strides in carving out a new reputation for ourselves as a forward thinking and ambitious club who can be taken seriously. For the first time, we were able to watch a World Cup Finals and then see our club go out and sign one of the stand-out players. It wasn't the first time we had tried. Many will remember the summer of 2002 when a fee was agreed for Leeds United's Robbie Keane, but a move broke down because Keane "did not want to speak to any other club". Two months later, Keane couldn't wait to speak to, and sign for, Tottenham. But Gyan was attracted to Sunderland, and would later be followed by the much sought-after Stephane Sessegnon and Champions league winner Sulley Muntari. If someone wants to tell me that getting ourselves into a position where players of this repute are prepared to risk those reputations on our club isn't a sign of genuine progression, then I despair at their ignorance.
3. Experience Banked for Future Benefit
Ask plenty of Sunderland fans who our finest footballers are and who we look towards to carry the threat and win us points, and very high on almost everyone's list will be Asamoah Gyan, Stephane Sessegnon, and Jordan Henderson. But in many ways, their contribution now is utterly dwarfed by what they could be capable of in the future. We haven't seen anywhere near the best of either one of them yet one feels and the experience they have gained this season takes them a step closer to being able to unlock that potential.
In Henderson's case, it is all to easy to look at the boy in the heart of our midfield and forget just how young he is. When we were playing our very best football in the first half of the season, it was with Henderson as the fulcrum of the side. He is a player rich in talent, and some would say searching for a position, but only by playing games at this level will he learn his own game, develop it, and discover what needs to be done to bring it into every occasion, and he has had an awful lot of games this season.
For Gyan and Sessegnon, it is more a case of them being granted time to grow comfortable with the speed and physicality of the English game, and adjusting to the differences in culture. Both have battled admirably since being thrown in the deep end out of necessity due to one reason or another, and both have also quite clearly struggled at times. But ultimately every single minute they have spent on the pitch, Henderson included, will be of benefit to the players and showing patience and faith in them this season will almost certainly position them to make a better and more consistent contribution next.
4. Jack the Lad
Say what you want about our injuries, but they have unearthed an absolute gem in Jack Colback. Without them, Colback may well be instructing his agent to line up a transfer for him this summer. His emergence this season is similar to Meyler's last year, and he has been, for my money, a lot more impressive.
Colback is very reminiscent of a younger, probably second spell, Paul Bracewell in the way he looks after a football. His first touch tends to effortlessly do the hard work for him, he has a lovely ability to swivel on the spot to protect the ball and open up options for himself to use it, and his pass completion success has been quite astonishing. He looks like a real find, and if we hold aspirations to becoming a a genuine passing team, then unspectacular yet efficient ball-players such as Colback are invaluable as the heartbeat of them. He has emerged as the player we all thought Cristian Riveros was going to be, with the added bonus of being left footed, and he can save us millions in the transfer market that can now be utilised elsewhere.
5. Academy Success Story
It is all too easy, as a football fan, to look at the first team and deem it the be all and end all. But at times we must remember that we support a football club, not a football team. Whilst Premier League results are by far and away the most crucial aspect of the club, others should not be overlooked and dismissed entirely. The Academy has had remarkable success this season, winning their division at a canter and narrowly missing out on a place in the national finals by virtue of a penalty shoot-out.
With Henderson and Colback the club seem to have set a model in place for successfully integrating its own youth products into the first team. Both players enjoyed good loan stints at Championship level, returned, and made an impact. With such a respectable track record starting to develop of bridging the huge gap between youth football and Premier League football, real talent being churned out by the Academy team presents mouth-watering possibilities.
As I understand it, Sunderland have made a conscious effort and commitment to recruiting the region's most promising schoolboy players, as well as starting to scout abroad and holding training camps around Europe. No one is saying every one of them will make it at Premier League level. It remains an arduous transition to make. But given we are starting to show some nous in how to nurture and believe in quality young players, the academy producing them can only be seen as a huge positive for the club.
So there we have it. Am I happy to be limping over the finishing line with little to look forward to other than this deeply frustrating, and at times purely miserable, season finally ending? No, absolutely not. Like everyone else, I had high hopes for the season and even allowed myself to dream of Sunderland being invited into the bigger footballing world of European competition around Christmas time. However, if we insist upon condemning the manager for failing to challenge for European football, we must also credit him with igniting our hopes in the first place. There have been some great highs as well as crushing lows this season and, just for today, I am focusing on the positives because they are there if you choose to see them.
Every club is a club in transition one way or another. Five years ago we were on our knees, and unless Ellis Short is fancying throwing Manchester City levels of money at the club, we can not expect to click our fingers and jump instantly from being on our knees to ousting Premier League stalwarts from their positions towards the top of the English football ladder. But without question we appear to have merely stalled on the right road rather than veered off onto the wrong one entirely.
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