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End Of Season Opinion From... Chris Young

To wrap up the week we have a man with his finger on the pulse of Sunderland more than most. It's the Sunderland Echo's top journalist for all things Sunderland, Chris Young, with his views on a tumultuous season...

Stu Forster

What are your thoughts on Sunderland's season as a whole?

Chris Young: Dreadfully underwhelming. After the capture of Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher last summer, I genuinely thought Sunderland would be top 10 challengers, provided they enjoyed a splash of fortune with injuries. But the season never seemed to ignite. In too many games, Sunderland were devoid of the intensity and hunger which Martin O'Neill brought during his first four months in the job. Nevertheless, after beating West Ham and Wigan in January, I thought those six points would prove sufficient to avoid relegation. Perhaps a sense of complacency overwhelmed everyone, as Sunderland were sleepwalking towards relegation before O'Neill was axed. Paolo Di Canio finally brought some interest to a desperately dull campaign and the win at St James's will be one rightly lauded for decades to come. Di Canio achieved his objective of keeping Sunderland in the Premier League and that was the only priority when he took over. But the season overall has to be classed as a huge failure. Another £30-odd million spent and Sunderland still can't take a decisive step away from the dogfight.

Do you feel the decision to replace Martin O'Neill with Paolo Di Canio was the right one?

CY: It was the biggest gamble of Ellis Short's stewardship in axing an established - if struggling - Premier League manager and replacing him with a novice maverick. But after watching Sunderland slump to defeat at QPR and then barely muster a shot against 10-man Norwich, the club were heading one way under O'Neill. I feel some sympathy towards O'Neill. Although he spent big on four players, he was still working with a squad predominantly assembled by Steve Bruce. And even if he left Sunderland's squad perilously thin by allowing Ji Dong-won, Fraizer Campbell, David Meyler and Ahmed Elmohamady to leave in January, he was disgruntled at not being given more to spend by Short. But Di Canio kept Sunderland up. Would O'Neill have done? On the basis of his last few results, it's doubtful. Long-term, Di Canio still has much to prove. But he got Sunderland organised and much fitter, despite being left with skeletal options. On that basis, Short's decision was undoubtedly the right one.

Who's your Player of the Season?

CY: Without question, Simon Mignolet. Back in pre-season, there were whispers around the Sunderland camp that Keiren Westwood would get the nod for the opener at Arsenal. Westwood had looked more impressive than Mignolet during the friendly programme and had returned to training early, desperate to secure a starting spot. But from that opening game at the Emirates onwards, Mignolet has been stunning. He had just two poor games all season - the clanger at home against West Brom and then the rout at Aston Villa. But there was a highlight reel of saves in between and it was staggering how his fellow pro's nominated David De Gea for the PFA team of the year. Some will laud Thomas Sorensen, but Mignolet is surely Sunderland's best keeper of the Premier League era.

Game of the Season?

CY: Only one contender. Sunderland have generally performed so badly in the derby for the last 30-odd years and then they produced a win which came from the wildest of dreams. Three stunning goals, dirty knees and even a succession of horse-based jokes. What more can you ask? Interestingly, in the week leading up to the game, Di Canio made no attempt to play down the significance of the match, as his predecessors have done. He brashly described it as counting for "2,000 games" and there was a sense that the players finally grasped that.

Goal of the Season?

CY: Again it comes from the derby, with David Vaughan's sublime third goal to put the final nail in Newcastle's coffin. The press box at St James's gave us a a perfect vantage point of the strike. We were in line with Vaughan as he swiped the ball with the outside of his left foot and watched it swing a couple of feet wide of the far post before bending back into the top corner. Vaughan proved last season that he is capable of netting stunners from distance. But that was one which he'll never surpass in his career.

Do you think the quite public stance Di Canio has taken with regards to attitude and fitness with the players is the right call to make, or should he have gone about things differently?

CY: From a press perspective, it didn't do us any harm! Watching the national journalists emerge from the press conference at White Hart Lane, they were like kids at Christmas. And from a purely entertainment perspective, I do think Di Canio is refreshing. Too many managers follow the Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger example of never daring to utter a word of criticism against their players. Perhaps that is why fans naturally turn against the man in the dug-out rather than those on the pitch. I think those who were disgruntled at Di Canio's methods, had taken that stance well before he aired his views in public anyway. And things did need to change regarding discipline. Supporters should be made well aware of that.

Can you give us a reason or two to feel positive about the summer and next season from what we witnessed last season?

CY: Personnel-wise, it's difficult to make many conclusions as Sunderland's side will undoubtedly have a far different complexion next season. Steven Fletcher has proved he can score goals and Adam Johnson improved significantly under Di Canio, so that bodes well. But the big two encouraging sights under Di Canio have been fitness and team shape. Sunderland looked so leggy or lethargic with O'Neill in charge. There will be none of that next season. Double and triple training sessions during pre-season will ensure Sunderland are in tip-top shape come August. Aston Villa-aside, Sunderland have also looked far more resilient under Di Canio, simply through having two well organised banks of four. If the club can bring in the right attacking reinforcements, then that bodes well.

There's been a million-and-one players already linked to the club, but if you were in charge who would be your number one transfer target?

CY: It has to be agreeing a permanent deal for Danny Rose. With Titus Bramble, Matt Kilgallon, Kader Mangane and probably Phil Bardsley leaving, Di Canio will have to build a new-look defence. That is a tricky business, but Rose is a tried and trusted option at left-back, in solving a position that has been problematic for years. Supporters have taken to Rose and he is keen to remain with Sunderland himself. Thankfully, Di Canio is also understood to share O'Neill's view about moving for him this summer. Tottenham will not allow Rose to go cheap. But he is a player that is well worth paying over the top for.

What's been your own personal highlight of the season, be it Sunderland-related or something else?

CY: Standing in the St James's tunnel and shaking Di Canio's hand as he walked past, trousers covered with grass stains and a look of a conquering Roman general on his face. Football needs characters like him. It isn't going to be dull next season.

Finally, any further thoughts on what has been an eventful season for us?

CY: Sunderland need to get the vast majority of their transfer business completed much earlier this summer. Three of Sunderland's five signings arrived after the opening day last August, while Louis Saha was only signed 48 hours before the first game at Arsenal. A couple of pre-season outings together could have made all the difference to Sunderland's attacking fluency, which was such a struggle over the opening month or two of the campaign.

Thanks very much to Chris, and if you want the most accurate and up to the second Sunderland transfer news this summer then check out the Sunderland Echo online, HERE. It's also got a rather sexy new look too. Also follow Chris on Twitter @YoungSunEcho.

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