As we continue our end of season opinions, we turn this time to George Caulkin. You'll know him from Twittering from @CaulkinTheTimes and of course his work for The Times both in print, online and their great podcast, The Game on which he regularly appears.
Not only that, but he's a patron of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. A great charity, whom we're fully behind here at Roker Report too.Visit their website here - www.sirbobbyrobsonfoundation.org.uk
However, it's footballing opinion we're after today, and in particular opinion Sunderland, so here are George's views. Almost as bizarre as our season itself...
Player Of The Season?
George: Firstly, hello. Secondly, happy end of season to Roker Report and all Sunderland fans. Fourthly, what happened to Thirdly. Thirdly, oh yes there it is. Fifthly, can I point out that I'm not very good at these questionnaire things because I can't remember what happened yesterday let alone earlier this season. Sixthly, where and who am I? Seventhly, the correct answer to your original question is Stephane Sessegnon. Eighthly, however, while I recognise that this is the correct answer, my actual answer is James McClean. Why, you ask? Mind your own business, I reply - this is my questionnaire not yours. Ninthly ... look, can I please stop doing this number thing? Thanks.
Right, so. Sessegnon has been excellent. He's a joy to watch, he makes Sunderland tick, he's the fulcrum and he's their inspiration. As I said earlier, the correct answer is that he's the player of the season. But McClean has been the difference. He was the man who made his debut in Martin O'Neill's first match as manager, who came off the bench to set up the victory which injected rocket fuel into Sunderland's boosters, who announced the dawning of a new era, who filled a position which has been a problem for years and who, by the end of the campaign, was being double-marked by teams of calibre. So he's my player of the season (even though Sessegnon is). Clear?
Young Player Of The Season?
George: Bollocks. I've massively backed myself into a corner now, haven't I? Because the correct answer to this question is McClean, isn't it? Bugger. Bugger bugger bugger. Hmm. Ok, well, I'm saying Jack Colback in that case. And, actually, I'm quite happy with that. A product of Sunderland's excellent Academy, this has been his breakthrough season. He's made more than 30 appearances, he's proved adept at fullback as well as in midfield, his workrate is excellent, he's got a lovely and composed touch and he shows no fear. And as Lawrie McMenemy once said (when he was managing Northern Ireland, not Sunderland, so don't shout at me): "I do like a ginger lad in midfield." When you come to think of it, a lot of the great teams have had a flame-haired presence in the middle, haven't they? Although probably not Brazil.
Best Signing Of The Season?
George: Considering Seb Larsson cost nothing and has scored seven goals, he has to be up there. And it's great to see Sunderland finally posing a threat from set-pieces, although he did tire a bit towards the end (as did many). There have been some important contributions along the way from most of them, but I think it's also fair to say that there has been a much-of-a-muchness feel. I really like what John O'Shea and Wes Brown have added to the psychology of the squad, when fit. But bearing in mind my first answer, as well as his paltry £350,000 fee, McClean sweeps up here, too. Big congratulations are due to Pop Robson and Sunderland's scouting team.
Most Disappointing Player Of The Season?
George: Arrghhhh. I really don't like singling people out like this (I'm a lover, not a fighter. Although I wouldn't want to be compared to Michael Jackson in every respect). The response I don't want to give is Connor Wickham; he's young, he's raw, he's got time on his side, the fee wasn't his fault, he can only get better, not his fault he's had injuries etc. I thought it was instructive that one of the reasons O'Neill wanted to sign Kevin Davies in January was because he would be able to teach the art of Number 9ery (or 10ery, to be pedantic), to Wickham (and Ji). That point was rammed home when Bolton played at the Stadium of Light and, apart from his two goals, Davies gave the perfect exhibition of using his backside, body and elbows to hold the ball up, winning free-kicks, all that stuff you hate when it's an opposition player and love it when it's one of your own. Hopefully with an unbroken pre-season and some experience beside him, we'll begin to see what Sunderland (and Liverpool) saw in Wickham a year ago.
Goal Of The Season?
George: There are a few candidates. I've probably forgotten some, but I can recall a couple of peaches from Kieran Richardson, Sessegnon's fine individual goal at home to Swansea, great efforts from Larsson and, of course, for the sheer, vital lift-off significance, David Vaughan and Larsson at home to Blackburn Rovers. However, my own favourite is utterly, unashamedly sentimental and has more to do with personality than quality. I found it very affecting when Fraizer Campbell put those months of injury-induced misery behind him and scored against Middlesbrough in the Cup and then went on that productive run which took him into the England squad. Lovely to see that smile again.
Game Of The Season?
George: Again, I tend to look at this from the viewpoint of significance. I'm sure we can all remember the corrosive feeling of the home game against Wigan Athletic, the feeling that a point of no return had been reached, a damn broken, a bottle uncorked, a ... er ... metaphor mixed. The next match at the Stadium of Light, against Blackburn and with O'Neill on the touchline, was celebratory, tense and then a release, all in one. Nothing has been more important than Larsson's 92nd minute winner. From a purely personal perspective, I made the long drive down to Swansea City and although the game was pretty poor, I loved the road trip and found Brendan Rodgers very impressive. I'm a masochist at heart.
Who do you think Sunderland should be looking at buying this summer?
George: The absolute priority has to be in attack. Nicklas Bendtner won't be coming back and nor will Asamoah Gyan and that leaves a considerable hole. Sunderland need a figure of substance up front (I come back to that Davies mentoring role), but they also desperately require goals. That'll probably mean two different players. The link to Blackburn's Junior Hoilett makes sense, because he would offer some variation. The centre of midfield is a bit samey for my liking. And I'd still want a proper left-back.
There's also talk of a clearout. Is there a player you think might not be as safe as they'd consider themselves?
George: Ummm. Most of them would be pretty obvious, I'd have thought. The three loan players will go, I guess. Craig Gordon is out of contract. There have to be question marks over people like Ahmed Elmohamady and David Meyler, who haven't been getting a game. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Richardson leave.
What was your personal highlight of the season?
George: Interviewing O'Neill ahead of the second Tyne-Wear derby was great. I'd been fortunate enough to have a coffee with him a couple of weeks earlier in which he'd told the story of deciding on a whim to get in his car and go in search of Roker Park. I was desperate to get him to tell it on the record and he very graciously agreed, recounting a lot of his early stories as a fan and explaining what 'being Sunderland' meant. It felt timely to remember, so soon after Niall Quinn's departure, that somebody who had that bond with the club's history was still around. I could listen to those kind of tales all day and it's absolutely my favourite thing to write about (I'd link the piece in the Times, but it's behind the paywall unfortunately). I did something similar with Steve Harper and Shola Ameobi at Newcastle, driving with them to Langley Park Primary (Sir Bobby Robson's old school) and chatting about memories of Barcelona, Bobby and so on. I'm a big softie, but I luurrrrve North East nostalgia.
Do you think the improvement made under Martin O'Neill will continue into next season, and what should be the aim?
George: Yes, I'm convinced it will. It's a shame that this season has tailed off a bit, although it's hardly surprising after the disappointment of the FA Cup departure and it was asking a lot to maintain that level of intensity once Sunderland had got themselves into a position of security. But the team is already difficult to beat, they're organised and there have been moments when I've looked at the players hunting in packs, harrying their opponents and being roared on by supporters and thought to myself that something crucial has been restored. The manager isn't here to settle for mediocrity. He wants European nights on Wearside, something he told directors shortly after his appointment. I'm sure the minimum target next year will be top ten. On that note, au revoir have a great summer everybody!
Many thanks to George for answering our questions, and please give him a follow on Twitter for all North Eastern footballing matters - @CaulkinTheTimes