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Captain's Blog: Manner Of Survival Offers Encouragement

The manner in which the 'failure' was fought, with pride, quality and albeit belated authority, can at least offer some encouragement for the future.

Well, the season has finished. Just enough time since has now passed for the dust to settle on another successful survival bid that once again managed to ultimately obscure the sheer irritation of its apparent perpetual necessity, but we are still a few weeks and signings away from optimism building for the start of the new campaign.

And all of that means one thing: It’s that time of the year again when I come on Roker Report and prattle on about how we’ve turned a corner (nope), learned our lessons (yeah right), can never happen again (it always has), and all that rubbish.

Well, screw that. This is Sunderland, and there is simply no predicting it.

What we can do, though, is look back, and there was something quite refreshing about last season’s survival: For the first time, it felt like quality, not character, was the basis of the strong end to the season.

In recent years, Seb Larsson, Lee Cattermole and John O’Shea have been absolutely central to scrambling enough points to be able to sneak survival. Though individually maligned at different times during their Sunderland careers, when it has mattered most they have always stood up and been counted.

They never had the quality to overpower any teams or dominate matches, but they doggedly dug in and were able to stretch games out long enough to allow the team to find something.

That ‘something’ was usually a bit of luck, like Cesar Azpilicueta’s error that led to the last minute penalty at Stamford Bridge in 2014, or for Jordi Gomez’s tame shot to deflect in off Danny Graham’s backside at Goodison Park a year later.

However, during last season’s run-in, O’Shea and Larsson could barely get on the pitch, and Cattermole was probably the last, not first, midfielder named on the team sheet.

Instead, the big moments were dominated by sheer quality. The biggest week of the season saw brilliant individual efforts from Whabi Khazri and Jermain Defoe that sank Chelsea, and then a Younes Kaboul defensive master-class to keep out Everton.

The individual moments only tell half the story, too. Sunderland lost just four games of their 18 in the Premier League in 2016, and they were all against teams who finished in the top seven. Jermain Defoe’s 15 goals, plundered at a rate of less than two games per goal, also point to a wider consistency than has been achieved in recent years, as well as the weekly contributions of January additions Jan Kirchhoff and Lamine Kone.

In fact, and it is something that has been lost in the seemingly endless media guff about the so-called "Rafalution" – that is to say a manager who takes over a Premier League club, turns them into a Championship one, and then is hailed a returning hero by virtue of deciding not to bugger off in shame – but Sunderland seized survival with downright authority.

When the season was on a knife-edge, Sam Allardyce’s troops travelled to Norwich and put three goals past them. When momentum was just starting to swing away from them, Sunderland put three goals past Champions Chelsea. When survival was within their grasp, three goals were put past Everton.

When it counted, when it really mattered, Sunderland dominated their own fate, and they did so with quality as its platform.

Whether or not corners have been turned and lessons have been learned, I don’t know. I gave up trying to predict what this club will do and the wonderfully messed-up yet inventive ways of doing it a long time ago.

In all honesty, I’m not even sure any successful survival bid actually can even be classed as a success at all. We all want better for our club so ultimately it’s a failure of a season and it should be considered as such, especially if we ever want to move on to a place where we don’t have to worry about relegation.

However, the manner in which the failure was fought, with pride, quality and albeit belated authority, can at least offer some encouragement for the future.

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