By Chris Harris
When a side is doomed to relegation, it's not uncommon to see them throw off the shackles and enjoy their stay in the top flight while it lasts. That doesn't seem to be the case at Sunderland.
Ask Ian Laws of the Sunderland Echo to name his highlight of the Mackems' campaign and, after a brief pause, he chooses "May 8. The day after the season ends." That response is indicative of the malaise on Wearside.
Sunderland went down a fortnight ago, ironically on the night they produced their most resilient display of the season to hold Manchester United at Old Trafford in a goalless draw. Ultimately, they just haven't been good enough.
What irks Laws and others like him is that West Ham and Wigan, who were left trailing in Sunderland's wake a year ago, have reached a Cup Final apiece this term and look completely at home in the Premiership. Why isn't the same true of Sunderland?
"One reason is that the new signings have been a let-down," explains Laws. "People were brought into the side in key positions at either end of the pitch and they've had a difficult time.
"Jon Stead has scored one goal and it was basically too late by the time he got that one at Everton. Goalkeeper Kelvin Davis has been more solid in the second half of the season but he struggled at the start and made some errors.
"There were 12 new signings and none of them have excelled. That was unexpected because Mick McCarthy's signings all came off last season. Dean Whitehead came in from Oxford and did very well and Stephen Elliott came in from Manchester City's reserves. Players like that made Sunderland's season a year ago, but McCarthy's policy hasn't worked this time.
"They really shouldn't be so far behind West Ham and Wigan. I wouldn't say Sunderland were far and away the better team in the Championship but they were champions because they were workmanlike and very effective, a fit side which scored a lot of late goals.
"However, West Ham and Wigan have got certain kinds of players up front with explosive pace and power. Sunderland's strikers have never shown the same qualities really."
Whitehead is Laws' pick as Sunderland's player of the season - "he has taken to the Premiership very well" - while Liam Lawrence is also worthy of a mention. But those individual successes represent slim pickings for Sunderland followers. "The players have given everything, but there is so little to be positive about," says Laws.
Inevitably, the talk on Wearside has turned to next season and the prospect of a return to the Championship. Can Sunderland rediscover the winning mentality which preceded their miserable year in the Premiership? Do they have the quality to challenge for promotion?
They are both reasonable questions but, as Laws points out, more and more fans are taking an interest in developments off the pitch as much as on it.
"The one thing people were clinging to was the Newcastle game but, after dominating for an hour, Sunderland self-destructed and lost 4-1," he says. "That summed up Sunderland's year in miniature. That's why there is no sense of finishing this season in a party atmosphere, because the supporters are keen to see a change at the top.
"It will be interesting because of the rumours flying about. Talk of consortiums is driving a lot of things and that is what people around here are looking forward to rather than talking about how the team is going to come back up."
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