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May 8, 2014

Things could only get better at Sunderland

With a win in their finale on Sunday, Gus Poyet's Sunderland could finish 12th in the table.
With a win in their finale on Sunday, Gus Poyet's Sunderland could finish 12th in the table.
Sunderland's survival celebrations are in full swing and the last game of the season promises to be a relaxing Sunday afternoon jaunt.

For much of the season, despite watching some grim scenes on Premier League pitches home and away, supporters have cheered themselves up with incessant chanting of the hook line from the D:Ream track "Things Can Only Get Better".

- Report: Poyet proud of Sunderland escape - Report: Sunderland 2-0 West Brom

And suddenly, things did. More was achieved in the last three weeks than in most of the preceding eight months. A seriously unlucky draw at Manchester City on April 16 was followed by four straight wins. The two home victories among them, against Cardiff and West Brom, seem nothing special until you consider the awful form Sunderland displayed earlier in the season at the Stadium of Light, even when playing mediocre sides or worse.

But to follow the disappointing loss of two points at the Etihad with well-earned wins at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford was little short of sensational.

After all they had to endure beforehand, Sunderland's tremendous support -- there'll be yet another 40,000-plus in attendance for the season-closing visit of Swansea -- richly deserve a heartwarming finale. Another win could even be enough to push the club to a lofty finishing place of 12th.

Amid all the relief and joy, however, darkly negative voices are heard. Not every Sunderland supporter is ready to forgive and forget the dross served up from August to mid-April, with the honourable exceptions of reaching the Capital One Cup final and FA Cup quarterfinals and beating local rivals, Newcastle United, home and away.

At Salut! Sunderland, I made my customary appeal to contributors to chip in with end-of-season report cards. The two received to date are so critical of the club, management and players that I have resolved to publish none until the season is over.

I can, however, give readers here a sneak preview, and this shows how far the sentiments go beyond beyond the simple "could do better" comments some of us remember from schooldays.

"Two weeks of elation or just plain relief have masked the month-after-month torment of dreadful performances, schoolyard defending and a lack of goals," says one. "A large section of our support are firmly behind [manager Gus] Poyet, but I am yet to be convinced that he can bring real stability or even mere consolidation in the Premier League."

The other is more measured but still heaps scorn on the efforts witnessed before the crucial late revival. "There's been one shining light for the whole season, solid, reliable, a class apart, delivering week in, week out," he concludes. "You lot, the fans. Without you, we would be dead and buried." At least that contributor is promising to add a "survival postscript".

Some of the criticism, even of Poyet, is fair. There was indeed something odd about starting a home game against West Ham with a massed defence. Perhaps he has been wrong to persevere with the consistently underachieving Jozy Altidore. But Poyet more than compensated for errors with inspired, game-changing substitutions, success in drawing one rock-solid performance after another from his old troupers in central defence, John O'Shea and Wes Brown, and encouragement of the often gaffe-prone Lee Cattermole. Cattermole's form has been outstanding in recent weeks.

And any manager who can take a team from bottom-place misery to the prospect of mid-table respectability, all the while fitting in a cup run all the way to Wembley, must be doing something right.

The cup exploits and the last lap of the Premier League have provided some of the most thrilling moments many have experienced as Sunderland supporters.

Tough decisions and shrewd man-management issues lie immediately ahead. Should the superb play of Seb Larsson in the season's closing stages make it imperative to keep him at Sunderland? Should heaven and earth be moved, if necesssary, to keep Jack Colback, like Larsson out of contract, and persuade at least some of the on-loan stars of the run-in -- Fabio Borini, Marcos Alonso, Santiago Vergini -- to prolong their stays? Borini's heart may lie elsewhere, though he must realise his present opportunities back at Liverpool would be severely limited.

What Poyet does about Altidore is trickier. The American should be given a decent chunk of the action against Swansea; it would be wonderful to hear fans chanting his name after a couple of goals instead of reading about surly Twitter exchanges with detractors. My guess, however, is that he will move on and try to replicate the goal-scoring prowess he took to the Dutch league at some other club, maybe in another country. There are bound to be new faces come August and Altidore's is not the only familiar one likely to be on its way out.

But I stick by a strong belief that finding significant fault with Poyet after such a magnificent escape from relegation is as both mean-spirited and naive as it is wrong.

One report suggests he has to overcome remaining disagreement with the owner, Ellis Short, on the freer hand he wants with transfer issues. But it is hard to imagine Short being willing to risk losing a man who accomplished the mighty task he set him last October and under whom things may well be about to get better still.