By Matt Fortune
Sunderland are safe but their manager Roy Keane claims that the past week has been his worst in management.
The malaise was sparked by a defeat at Bolton but what better way to lift Keane's spirits than a win over the club that he enjoyed one of the most entertaining rivalries with in his playing days?
Arsenal travel to the Stadium of Light assured of third-spot in the table and in the knowledge that the Black Cats are yet to take a point off any of the top five sides in the Premier League. Be warned, though, they are well worth their spot in the top tier next season.
Before the game we spoke with Ian Laws of the Sunderland Echo for his view on the progress made in the North-East, the effect of injuries, Sunderland's financial clout, and why a central defender playing at left-back is their Player of the Season.
THE STORY SO FAR
"It is job well done. Roy Keane, though, is never satisfied and he has said to us that he doesn't see this as something to celebrate. He thinks a club like Sunderland should be looking higher than that and looking for better than that but the fact they have maintained Premier League status is very welcome given the terrible seasons they have had the last two times they were in there - 19 points and 15 points knocks the stuffing out of a club and its fans. To stay in the Premier League among the Arsenals, Manchester Uniteds, Chelseas and Liverpools is a good thing for everybody.
"They have dipped into the bottom three a few times, and you do start to wonder. The injuries they suffered, I know a lot of struggling teams do look at that as an excuse, but Sunderland have suffered. They had players needing operations and spending three and four months on the sidelines. I think the fact they were in with a shout of staying up was a bonus and for them to do it with a couple of games to spare is a great testament to them. They went through an important stage when they got three wins on the trot in February and March. That did a lot for their prospects. There have been a lot of games where they should have got draws and managed to turn them into defeats which must have been frustrating. They haven't shown that ability to grind something out from a not-so-great performance. Keane has reflected on that a few times this season.
"Next season I think that mid-table is a realistic aim. Keane has made his target to be competitive among the pack in the middle. You know the West Hams, Blackburns, Man Citys."
"Their season turned quite significantly in January, as it did the season before, in that they strengthened the defence. They bought in Phil Bardsley from Manchester United on a permanent deal and then Jonny Evans on loan. Both have played a key role. Craig Gordon, the goalkeeper, has grown in stature after spending a lot of money on him. He is now a solid and reliable player. Andy Reid brought in a bit more flair and passing quality. It appears that they have more money than perhaps other clubs have had."
PLAYER OF THE SEASON?
"I agree with the supporters association who made Danny Collins the Player of the Season. He plays at left-back. There was a hell of a lot of pressure on Danny this season because the club were in the market for that position, which is not his natural place; he is a centre-back. Playing out of position he has done really well. He has made mistakes, like most players, but he has been a solid player for the club. He has got his head up after disappointments and done really well. Kenwyne Jones has come in and made a great impact. He has not scored as many goals as he, Keane or the fans would have liked, seven, but he has been a real tower of strength when he has played. They have relied on him a lot when they play one up front, particularly away from home, and he has taken a lot of punishment from defenders because of that."
"Kieran Richardson has obviously been at a big club and experienced success at Manchester United. He came to the club but was out quite soon into the season with a serious back injury which meant he could do very little. He was in a spinal brace for quite some time and that ruled him out. He came back, had a couple more matches, showed some form, and then got a hamstring injury. So he has not had a prolonged spell in the side and hasn't been able to say 'I can give my best now.' Keane won't accept excuses from anybody but Kieran hasn't had a consistent season of fitness or form, so that has been a miss. Dean Whitehead the captain missed three months with a knee injury. Carlos Edwards injured a hamstring and then broke his leg a few games into his comeback. There is a whole list of them."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"Money certainly has helped. Keane has invested more than £40 million on new signings and a lot have been players getting a first crack at the Premier League but some have experience in that area so he has been able to strengthen in key areas."
"I can answer that better when you see what the transfer window brings. I don't think Reading, for example, were able to make another dip in the kitty after coming up. They haven't changed their promotion squad a whole lot. Sunderland will have money, how much exactly will be known soon. I think financially they are in a decent position to offer the money players want. It is a case of whether they can pip other clubs to those signatures. With that in mind I don't think there will be a big wobble."
"Given that they secured survival, you would be surprised to hear that Keane said this has been his most disappointing week in management. He took last week's defeat at Bolton very, very badly. He was hard on his players for their lacklustre performance and will be looking for a reaction. He has said next season's squad will be decided on the performances at the end of this season. You will see a committed display. They have generally been much stronger at home and have had a real go. It is a sell-out so there will be a big crowd wanting a big send-off into the summer. I think it will be decent game because you know Arsenal play good football regardless whether something is hanging on it and it will be an interesting test for Sunderland to see if they can finally get a point of one of the top five teams because they haven't done that yet. They have gone close and missed out only by the single goal at Arsenal and at Man United. They have given half-decent performances and got nothing to show for it. They will want to change that."