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From The Durham Times: Cats Season Progressive Despite Disappointments

Simon Mignolet is one of many bright lights for Sunderland this season.
Simon Mignolet is one of many bright lights for Sunderland this season.

Time to get all journalistic again, although it's tinged with sadness as we're taking a few weeks off from the paper.

Every week we provide The Durham Times - an affiliation of which we are hugely proud - with our take on all things Sunderland, so why not start buying the paper each and every Friday from your local newsagents. It's only 50p, which is a bargain for a week's worth of news! If you're all digital then you can head on over to their website on a Friday and read it there (CLICK HERE). Finally if you want to wait, head right here at the weekend where we'll be reproducing it.

Enough of that, though. Lets talk football.

On the eve of the season all the way back in August, our Roker Report podcast discussion turned to what would constitute a successful season for Sunderland. Things were very different then, of course. Steve Bruce was still in charge, Asamoah Gyan was the talismanic figure on the pitch, Niall Quinn was the chairman, and no one had even heard of James McClean.

I stand by what I said that day, however. Failing to better last year's tenth placed Premier League finish was not a prerequisite of a progressive Sunderland season. What is more, I feel that events have proven that assertion correct.

A thirteenth placed finish isn't anything to get pulses racing, admittedly. Neither was the way in which the season descended into monotony following the hugely disappointing FA Cup exit to Everton in March.

Nevertheless, the club appears to be in far better shape to move forward then they were 12 months ago.

First of all, they have a much better manager. You sense that Sunderland fans will be treated to embittered and and revisionist rants every now and again from Steve Bruce until he gets another job. But even he couldn't spin an argument to suggest that he could offer the club a better proven pedigree than Martin O'Neill.

'Success' is a tough concept to define in football. Had Sunderland had Liverpool's season of a top eight finish, an FA Cup final, and a trophy, for example, it would be heralded as a glorious and historic season. To Liverpool it is a failure worthy of sacking the manager.

What you can say about O'Neill however, is that progression has always followed him round his entire career. Every single one of his clubs have enjoyed notable improvement during his tenure, and there is little reason to expect anything else now.

That isn't to say that miracles should be expected. Money is likely to be tight given the onset of the financial fair play regulations which will restrict Ellis Short's ability to bankroll his manager like he has done in the past, so expectations should be restrained and pressure-building unhelpful buzz-phrases like 'next level' probably shelved. But Martin O'Neill's achievements are certainly a stronger basis for cautious optimism than Steve Bruce's ambitions ever were.

Without question there will need to be some squad strengthening. A year of watching Nicklas Bendtner frequent the left-hand touchline as if tethered to it by a bungee-cord is enough to convince anyone that a consistent penalty box presence is required as a matter of urgency.

Whilst the squad does possess a couple of glaring weaknesses, however, the core is very strong. Stephane Sessegnon is looking settled and explosive in attack, and John O'Shea imperious and authoritative at the back. Sebastian Larsson can provide a consistent set-piece threat - a hallmark of all of Martin O'Neill's teams - and you would hope that Wes Brown will play a much bigger part next term too.

Then there are the breakout stars of the season. Jack Colback has spent the season quietly maturing into a midfield player of real influence. Quite how he has managed to elude the gaze of the top clubs is a mystery to us all but a welcome relief. Simon Mignolet seems to have started to add the air of authority to his game that was formerly lacking and has ensured that Craig Gordon's expensive contract can be jettisoned without risk, and what is there possibly left to be said about the rise of James McClean?

The season in general has disappointed. You have to say that it hasn't delivered what was hoped for. But it absolutely has delivered progress, even if it hasn't been reflected in the standings yet.


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