No such heroics this time from the Black Cats, as Sunderland surrendered rather tamely to Manchester United at the Stadium of Light. And make no mistake, although it was 1-0 on the last day of the season to the Reds, and 1-0 can sound close, it was a thoroughly praiseworthy and masterfully efficient performance by United. The only surprise was how the visitors did not score more goals.
It was a privilege for our club to be involved in such a dynamic way in the outcome of the Championship race on the final day, in front of a capacity crowd at the SSOL. By dynamic, I do not really mean the Sunderland performance, which was gritty in resisting the United attacks, but lacking any creativity going forward. It was more that an amazing spectacle was being played out in the North of England, on this most incredible end to what has been a remarkable Premiership season, in fact to any season.
When the whistle went at the end of the match, City were still behind 1-2 to QPR at the Etihad, despite Barton’s crass stupidity in being sent off. His ban is thoroughly deserved and I doubt we will see him playing at the top level again. Sir Alex looked hopeful as he waited for the final whistle from Manchester. Over the next 5 minutes he and all of the Reds fans were thoroughly deflated. Personally, I was delighted, being no fan of Sir Alex, and to be honest I am getting bored of Man Yoo.
It seems like the last time we played well was at the Etihad on March 31, where we were the only side to come away with a point this season. The Black Cats we nearly got all 3, when leading 3-1 with just 7 minutes to go. In that context, the late season funk we all witnessed from our team must have come as a shock to manager Martin O’Neill, as well as to all of the loyal fans. The Sunderland team ended on 45 points, and although there were some creditable draws towards the end, our last win was against QPR, with 8 games to go. As others observed, not least our captain Lee Cattermole, the late season performances did not allow for any papering over the cracks, which was very important in terms of transfer policy for next season.
Three things became apparent to me and stood out as we stuttered into May. First, our reliance on the midfield drive of Larsson became clearer in my mind. His quality deliveries, such as the one that led to Melberg’s header against England in that rousing game, and crucial goals, like the two at the Etihad, were always going to be missed as he went under the knife for a hernia problem in preparation for the Euros. I will for one be very pleased to see him back in the Sunderland team next season. Sessègnon is our great creator, but Larsson’s consistency has been critical for the team after the sale of Henderson. He was joint top scorer on 8 goals.
Secondly, the sadness of seeing Niklas Bendner on a self-destructive path. He had a decent season by his standards, and is on an excellent scoring run for the Danish national team, his two against Portugal being typical of his efforts for his home country. He will get another club, but probably not in England. Missing the team bus for the last game of the season was the final straw for the manager, who must have been disquieted by the big Dane’s immaturity at times. His tendency to lope around about 40 yards from goal in search of the ball when we needed a guy like him in the 6-yard box was striking. I will remember some of his goals though, his last one against Bolton and the header at the Etihad were particularly memorable, but overall his season gave an impression of unfulfilled potential, especially after Steve Bruce talked him up so much after a loan period at Birmingham.
Thirdly, to me, James McLean definitely went off the boil in the final weeks. Perhaps he was not such an unknown quantity to the opposing teams towards the end of the campaign, and was more of a marked man, but his performances seemed below par. Those crazy death threats after this Ulsterman chose to play for the Republic would have unsettled anyone, and he has obviously been underused by Trappatoni in their two defeats. I sincerely we see him back at his goal-threatening best again early next season. The guy has been a revelation for us since coming out of the reserves in December.
So things have gone a bit quiet as we are taking our summer holidays and generally having fun. I am sure Martin O’Neill has a cunning plan and we will see some exciting new signings before the transfer window is over. The problem is that everyone wants to sign strikers, be it Arsenal, Liverpool, or any of the mid-table teams, but where do they all come from? We are now halfway through the European Championship Tournament, and I hoped that the Euros would throw up some talent such as the Croatian striker Mandzukic, who would make an impressive signing… .
Our star performer last season was Stephane Sessègnon, and I will leave it to Garth Crooks to praise him in new ways. The Benin international was featured in the former Spurs man’s team of the season, and I quote below:
CENTRAL MIDFIELD - STEPHANE SESSEGNON
Sunderland were having a turbulent season when the arrival of Martin O'Neill provided the Black Cats with renewed impetus. Players like James McClean, Phil Bardsley and Seb Larsson all felt the surge provided by O'Neill's arrival but none more so than Stephane Sessegnon.
To be fair he was playing well under Steve Bruce but O'Neill seemed to give the player a confidence that went beyond anything we had seen before from the West African. One of his performances prompted me to suggest that in the light of the demise of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, Sir Alex could do much worse than take the Benin star to Old Trafford. My views have not changed.
Did you know? Only David Silva (86) set up more shots for his team-mates in open play than Sessegnon in the Premier League this season (71).
©Lars J.S. Knutsen