Sunderland survive under Advocaat after a difficult season
With the Premier League season over, here's a look back at Sunderland's campaign as thoughts turn towards the summer and next season.
Your season in a sentence and final grade: D-
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Beating Newcastle United twice and the belief each result inspired that a surge up the table would follow. Both were good, hard-working performances, with one winner resulting from a sweeping move (Adam Johnson at St James' Park) and the other from a stunning goal of the season contender (Jermain Defoe's volley in the return game). The players really should have built on such exhilarating victories.
Thumping defeats to unspectacular opponents in each subsequent game, reminding everyone of Sunderland at their erratic worst. It beggared belief that the same players who lifted their games to overcome fierce local rivals would then suffer humiliation at home to Hull City (1-3) and Crystal Palace (1-4). The Palace rout was Dick Advocaat's third game in charge and he must have wondered what had possessed him to take the job.
It is little short of miraculous that after such a crushing defeat -- driving thousands of fans home early from the Stadium of Light -- the Dutchman still managed to inspire the team to an impressive run to safety.
Sebastian Larsson. A little more than a year ago, the Swedish international looked likely to move. Plenty of supporters felt he had passed his peak and would be no great loss. But he produced a storming end to last season, capped by a sweetly finished winner at Manchester United.
He then signed a new contract and continued where he had left off. Week after week he out-performed his teammates, with the occasional exceptions of Lee Cattermole and goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon.
And he rightly carried off the player of the season title as voted by supporters. The fact that he actually wanted to stay at Sunderland when there were attractive opportunities to go elsewhere did no harm to his popularity on Wearside and his form has won over most doubters.
Jack Rodwell will wish to forget his first season at the Stadium of Light after the feted £10million signing from Man City. Sunderland expected a box-to-box workhorse of the calibre of Sunderland-supporting, Sunderland-groomed Jordan Henderson, but saw only a shadow of the man who offered such rich promise at Everton.
But he cannot have become a bad footballer. Can Sunderland take heart from his sterling efforts as a substitute in the crucial second half at Arsenal that earned the point needed to secure Premier League survival?
Expectations for the summer
After so much false hope in recent seasons, Sunderland desperately need truly ambitious investment in at least five quality players covering back four, midfield and attack.
John O'Shea and Wes Brown need cover or even replacing. Sebastian Coates, one of the heroes of the survival-securing draw at Arsenal, is only on loan from Liverpool and should be signed on a permanent basis.
Despite the contributions of Larsson and Cattermole, the midfield lacks a genuinely creative game-changer and the present crop of attackers score all too rarely.
The needs are probably so extensive that recruitment should coincide with a substantial clear-out, not least because club owner Ellis Short will feel very reluctant to commit yet more investment unless convinced his money will at last be spent well.
Prediction for next year
Assuming the glaring issues can be addressed and another survival battle avoided, wild optimism prevails -- and 11th place finish.
Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland