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Reflection: This Season Wasn't So Bad After All

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Guest blogger Michael Bowers looks back over the 2015/2016 season for Sunderland, and ponders whether or not it was all that bad despite Sunderland finishing in seventeenth place.

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Well, that’s it everyone – another season over, and another successful fight against relegation gone.

The game at Watford didn’t mean anything and thank goodness it didn’t. I’m not going to go on a rant about Kevin Friend but all I’ll say is it’s the not the first time he’s cost us unfairly. How he is even a professional referee let alone a Premier League one, I don’t know.

Other than that, it’s mainly positives at Sunderland. The youngsters played really well and looked comfortable - that was against Watford’s strongest side as well. We can’t get carried away after one game but there’s reason to be optimistic about the future on Wearside.

The biggest factor in that is obvious – Sam Allardyce. Here is a manager who is established at this level of English football and has done very good things in the game. He went to Upton Park when West Ham were in the Championship and brought them back up before stablising them as a consistently good Premier League side. Look where they are now. Now I’m not for one second saying it’s been a fantastic season or we will be a top six side next season as I’m trying to keep level-headed.

Despite me enjoying us relegating our lovely rivals, neither Newcastle or Sunderland should have been anywhere near this position in the first place. We still only finished fourth-bottom and I don’t think that’s anything to be proud of but bizarrely the post-season feeling after this campaign feels better than after the previous three.

After the 12-13, 13-14 and 14-15 seasons, I obviously hoped we wouldn’t be in another dogfight but I had that niggling thought in the back of my mind we would be in for another season of struggle. This time it’s different. The previous three seasons we stayed up mainly due to four of five ‘flash in the pan’ freak results. I would argue when we did the great escape we deserved to stay up but that’s really debatable. I don’t think anyone can suggest we deserved to go down this season.

Aston Villa were woeful, Norwich simply didn’t have enough quality up front and while there are some very good individual players at Newcastle, they didn’t show enough fight and team spirit until it was too late. I’ve never been a fan of ‘the league table doesn’t lie’ but the three teams that went down deserved to get relegated.

If you take away the first eighty minutes at Liverpool, the last thirty minutes against Leicester and the second-half at Stoke, Sunderland have been consistently doing the right things since the end of the January transfer window. We’ve been competitive, defended as a unit and looked threatening whenever we go forward, albeit a large portion of that has to be Jermain Defoe. It does make me shudder at the thought of where we would have finished without him. Thankfully, they are just thoughts.

People have compared us to Leicester when they escaped relegation a year ago in terms of always being in games and having a good team spirit and competitiveness about them. We definitely saw this in the last three months of the season. Obviously, I’m not expecting Sunderland to win the Premier League next season but Champions League qualification will do me nicely indeed. In all seriousness, I’d take finishing between 11-14th as long as we were comfortably and consistently clear of the bottom three throughout the whole season.

Relegating Newcastle plus the consistently good performances from February onwards are the main reasons I’m not slating this campaign. On paper, it’s been a poor season - especially the first nineteen games - but after Christmas we’ve massively improved as a side. We’ve gone from being unfit and toothless to running around like our lives depend on it and hard to beat.

All of this will mean nothing if we don’t build on this next season but if (and ONLY if) we finally get things right off the pitch this summer we have a strong chance of not being in the mix to avoid relegation.