Captain's Blog: Saying Cats Didn't Save Themselves Sells Ellis And Paolo Short

Harry Engels

Sunderland are safe after a wretched season but, even after watching Swansea and Arsenal deliver the fatal blows to Wigan, it's wrong to say that the club didn't save themselves from the drop.

It wasn't achieved in a particularly convincing manner, but Sunderland will once again be a Premier League club next season. The recriminations will soon begin and sweeping summer changes are expected this summer, and there won't be a single one of us who won't welcome them.

Those inevitable recriminations, blame-mongering, and witch hunts just don't feel right at the moment though, certainly not from my perspective anyway. Before the club moves on - as it must with a matter of fresh purpose and haste - I think we can afford a brief pause to credit the people who got us out of the mire.

There are those who will tell you that we were ‘lucky' to stay up. They'll bleat on for what seems like an age, obsessively insisting that Wigan ‘deserved' to stay up on account of their more commitment to a more fluid and attacking brand of football than our own. They will almost certainly mention, at length, that it was Arsenal and Swansea who got the job done when Sunderland could not.

Personally, I think that is unfair. Forget the O'Neill era and the frustrations and disappointments that defined it. People paid the price for whatever wrongs occurred. When you abandon the anger and the clichés and instead allow yourself to digest a strong dose of reality, the escape that Paolo Di Canio orchestrated was actually quite remarkable.

Let's cast our minds back to just after the Norwich debacle, when O'Neill's men spent 60 minutes being effortlessly swatted away by a poor side with a man less.

If someone had stopped you as you left the Stadium and told you that Sunderland would stay up from a run of games that included two away fixtures at teams chasing Champions League qualification (including the reigning European Champions themselves), the club's two most feared bogey teams, and three highly motivated relegation rivals, you'd have probably laughed in their faces.

If they went on to tell you that survival would be ensured without the top scorer, without the captain, without the only remaining senior striker being capable of scoring a single goal, and without Stephane Sessegnon for just about half of those games, you'd have slapped them in the face for insulting your intelligence and mocking you in a time of abject misery.

If they had then added that it would be achieved with a game to spare and without playing well against - or beating - a single one of the relegation rivals faced, you'd have likely walked away consumed with confusion and questioning every facet of what you believed to be reality.

At times it hasn't been pretty and, Sunderland being Sunderland, it was done the hard way with plenty of suffering along the line for us fans. But when you find yourselves in the mess we did, you simply don't have the luxury of choosing how you get out of it. All that matters is that you scrape together enough points to avert disaster.

Despite whatever suspicions we have, the fact is that we will never actually know whether the club was headed for the drop under Martin O'Neill. Like most, my own opinion is that we probably would have gone under. We don't get to condemn on the basis of suspicion and alternative history, though.

What we can do, however, is give enormous credit to Ellis Short. His decision to sack O'Neill - an established and well-respected name and replace him with a controversial inexperienced manager from the lower leagues was as gutsy as they come.

I am quite certain it was a decision which was agonized over. He essentially took the club's public profile and continued commercial growth and gambled them on an unfancied and unpredictable young maverick to outperform a pedigree runner in a pressure race. I don't think I would have been so brave.

In a season which will be defined by failure, the key man at the club delivered - again.

Attention at the club will now be turned to the summer when Di Canio ‘will change everything' to ensure this doesn't happen again. He isn't the first man to be charged with that task, so I won't be making any predictions about how successful he will be. It's just as you were really in terms of being a Sunderland fan. Hope over expectation. Cautious optimism that this will be the year when karma finally forgives us for whatever shocking misdemeanours it is that enslaved us into this savage and brutal existence.

But I do know one thing. I know that when Di Canio talks about change he doesn't just mean the names on the squad sheet and the position in the league table. He literally does mean everything - standards of professionalism, training and scouting methods, attitudes, footballing philosophy. He plans to tweak at the very DNA of the football club.

Whether or not he succeeds I have no idea. I am not even all that sure if it can even be done. I applaud the intent though, and by ensuring the club's Premier League survival against some pretty unfavourable odds he has certainly earned the right to try.

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