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May 12, 2014

End of season review: Sunderland

Intro

Expectations vs reality: After the great Paolo Di Canio escape act of a year ago, the last thing I expected was the need for another. I was excited by a few of the preseason and August signings, but by the end of Di Canio's turbulent reign, the team adrift without a win, the only realistic expectation was of certain relegation. Survival under new boss Gus Poyet was, most of the time, so improbable that finishing 14th -- with the bonus of a trip to Wembley -- amounted to the stuff of dreams. Supporters still have to pinch themselves to be sure survival was not just that: a dream.

Star Pupil

The flippant answer is the loan system. Without Fabio Borini and Ki Sung-Yueng, borrowed from Liverpool and Swansea, respectively, there would have been no Wembley and little reason to hope for Premier League salvation. Marcos Alonso and Santiago Vergini ultimately proved valuable January acquisitions. Connor Wickham returned from loan spells rejuvenated, to score crucial goals. Among fully-fledged employees, Wes Brown -- when neither suspended nor injured -- and born-again Lee Cattermole were solid and inspirational when it mattered. Vito Mannone had magnificent games in goal, but Borini gets the highest marks for his flair, work rate and goals. If only he could or would stay.

Detention

With apologies to U.S. readers who hooked up to Sunderland's cause because of his presence, the dunce's cap must be worn by Jozy Altidore. He had poor service a lot of the time, but responded in profligate fashion even when its quality improved. Yes, he offered a few useful touches, badgering defenders or making telling flicks or passes, but these are aspects that complement a striker's role. He failed in the day job -- an attacker who never scores rarely belongs in a team. I wish Altidore well, but his report card from Sunderland is not one he would wish to show at home.

Teacher's notes

Gus Poyet is entitled to say moving from bottom of the league in April to a safe 14th by the season's end is as powerful shield as he needs to ward off criticism. But I hope he is never again tempted to start a home game against modest opposition with a massed defence, as he did when West Ham visited on March 31. It was the first of a run of three straight defeats that made relegation seem unavoidable. But Poyet deserves immense credit for taking a side devoid of hope in mid-October to one six points clear of the bottom three by May.

Final grade

From an F-minus until Di Canio was fired in September to an A-plus for reaching Wembley and stringing together those season-saving four games against Chelsea and Manchester United away and Cardiff and West Brom at home. The flat 3-1 home defeat to Swansea, ending the season on a disappointing note, suggests an overall grade hovering between B-plus and A-minus. Let us see who stays, among the players on loan and out of contract, but Poyet must strengthen in defence, midfield and attack. If the owner, Ellis Short, refuses to let him, I suspect he may do it somewhere else.