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May 11, 2014

Poyet must build to avoid another testing season

Someone behind the scenes at Sunderland had the right idea: Let's call it the lap of appreciation. A lap of honour, after a losing finish to a whirlwind season, would have added an unjustified gloss. Appreciating the terrific support this club attracts -- with, once again, more than 45,000 present for the finale -- struck precisely the right note.

This was the day Sunderland reverted to something closer to the form shown in the vast majority of the games played until the astonishing recovery began at Manchester City in April, when the champions elect were lucky to snatch a draw. The ensuing four-game sequence of wins at Chelsea and Manchester United and at home to Cardiff and West Brom will be remembered as long as football is played in the north east of England.

But the ease with which Swansea poured rain on the victory -- or survival -- parade showed Gus Poyet just why it would be unwise to consider the wonders of the past four weeks as anything more than a splendid escape act.

Several players began Sunday's game in the knowledge they would probably be elsewhere by the time league football resumes after the World Cup. Nothing is yet cast in stone, but from the starting lineup, Jack Colback, Fabio Borini, Phil Bardsley, Seb Larsson and Santiago Vergini may have been playing their last games in Sunderland's red and white stripes. The same must apply to two of the three substitutes used, Jozy Altidore and Ondrej Celustka.

And Poyet, assuming he is not also thinking of another move, knows he has a major rebuilding project on his hands in any case.

Sunderland glaringly lacked pace and creativity against Swansea. The commitment that had carried them through the previous four games, maximum points ensuring a sensational avoidance of relegation, was no longer enough. Swansea, with strong, lively, attacking play from Wilfried Bony, Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer and Marvin Emnes, made the first half a misery for Sunderland's defence.

On, eventually, came Altidore. "Everyone's willing him to get one," said Gary Bennett, a star of Sunderland's modest recent history. He hit one decent chance wide and later tumbled over, rightly denied a penalty by Chris Foy, when in another good position. Sadly, he could not do it any more than he could month after month since last August with the miserable exceptions of one goal in the league cup, one in the Premier League.

He seems a likeable enough man despite a few inappropriately combative exchanges with provocative critics on Twitter. To see him back at Sunderland after the World Cup would surprise me and many more.

Cardiff City and Norwich City lost, too, and Fulham could only draw. So Sunderland's margin of safety, taking goal difference into account, was six points -- a gap that seemed quite impossible only a month ago.

Poyet has accomplished the task he was given, against exceptional odds. He also led his team to Wembley. And the ordinary, on-loan and out-of-contract players have performed out of their skins to produce a season's end to please. But such escapes come round rarely -- only West Brom, in 2005 under Bryan Robson, have managed the same turnaround: bottom at Christmas but safe in May. The arrow-dodging has to stop.

Assuming he is not lured away, Poyet's next task is the one his immediate predecessors -- Steve Bruce, Martin O'Neill and Paolo Di Canio -- have found beyond them: building on survival. An army of fans await his next moves.