Sunderland season review – Season of hope ends with disappointment

Sunderland – 13th

FA Cup – Quarter-final

League Cup – 2nd Round

A season of transition is perhaps the euphemism for what Sunderland fans have just witnessed and it’s hard to be sure exactly where it’s left the club. A poor start and end to the season meant they failed to beat the previous year’s points tally and finished three places lower. Yet on the flip side, the services of one of the county’s most sort-after managers have been secured, and for three heady months from December to the end of March it seemed as if Martin O’Neill was working his customary magic.

The summer saw a rash of new signings. However, the loss of Asamoah Gyan to the cash-rich Al-Ain in the UAE and the failure to properly replace Darren Bent, who had left the previous January, would haunt the team all season. Only five clubs scored fewer goals than the Black Cats who themselves managed to find the net only three times in their final seven games.

Just two wins in their first 13 matches saw Steve Bruce sacked after a 2-1 home defeat at home to bottom-of-the-table Wigan which left Sunderland just two points off the drop zone. It would be kind to call him unlucky with the previous two season also tarnished by long winless streaks.

The hope and expectation raised by O’Neill’s appointment as Bruce’s replacement seemed to have been fulfilled as Sunderland won four of his first six games in charge including a New Year’s Day win against eventual champions Manchester City.

A new year and a new dawn perhaps? At one point they were top of the form table with some suggesting they could qualify for Europe if they kept up that pace. There were even dreams of a repeat of ’73 as O’Neill’s team dispatched Arsenal on the way to the FA Cup quarter-final. However, having seemingly done the hard part by getting a draw at Goodison Park, Sunderland collapsed on a cold March night at the Stadium of Light and so did their form.

They wouldn’t win again before the close of the season and would ultimately finish outside the top 10 on fewer points than the previous season. Their last 17 league and cup games brought them just three wins, a run on a par with the one at the start of the season which had led to Bruce’s departure. The Geordie, who claimed the fans never gave him a chance because of his place of birth, must have been chuckling to himself somewhere. To make matters worse, the Sunderland fans had to endure their biggest rivals winning plaudits and making a serious challenge for the Champions League.

Towards the end of the season O’Neill had said he didn’t know if the team he inherited was a good one which had underperformed under Bruce or an average one which had over-performed under him. That post-FA Cup hangover-induced fallow run, coupled with the poor start to the season suggests that the team had over-performed. And it’s that which raises the big questions: How will O’Neill reshape Sunderland during the summer? And, how well will the team do when he’s had the chance to make it his own?

Manager – Martin O’Neill: A poor start under Steve Bruce led to his replacement by Martin O’Neill. He immediately galvanised the team but their FA Cup exit prompted a winless streak from March to the end of the season. That said, Sunderland fans shouldn’t worry too much. O’Neill’s last two jobs in England have seen him turn Leicester and Aston Villa around and neither has yet recovered from his departure.

Player of the season – James McLean: James McClean was, along with Jack Colback, one of the young players Martin O’Neill brought into the first team following his arrival and he proceeded to terrorise Premier League defences for the rest of the season, playing himself into the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2012 squad in the process.

Turning point – The FA Cup quarter-final: Sunderland had high hopes going into their FA Cup quarter-final home replay with Everton. The surrendered meekly and didn’t win again after that defeat finishing, outside the top 10. However, Sunderland’s season arguably has two turning points, the arrival of O’Neill in December prompted a fantastic run of form, including wins over Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Those first three months under the new boss will provide hope for the coming season.

Check out the Euro 2012 odds and get some tips on the European Championships betting.

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