AFTER a breathless end to the campaign, thoughts are now turning to the future as Gus Poyet prepares for his first full season in charge at the Stadium of Light.
But which of the current crop will remain part of Poyet’s plans going forward?
In the first of a two-part feature, the Echo’s Chris Young examines the prospects of each member of Sunderland’s squad from the 2013-14 campaign.
After originally being earmarked as back-up to Keiren Westwood, Mannone ultimately proved to be a seamless replacement for the departed Simon Mignolet.
The Player of the Year was an ever-present in the Premier League after Westwood’s season-ending injury in November and he will remain a key cog in the team’s spine next time around.
Sunderland need to be pro-active in securing the Italian’s long-term future, with only a year to run on his current deal and plenty of suitors understandably drawn to his performances since arriving in a £2million move from Arsenal.
But Mannone is in no hurry to depart the Stadium of Light after relishing being a first-team regular and forming a genuine bond with supporters.
Poyet considered Ustari one of the most unfortunate members of his squad over the final few months of the campaign; believing he deserved a regular starting spot.
Ustari’s attitude and performances on the training field impressed the Sunderland boss, yet Vito Mannone’s contribution blocked the Argentine’s path to the first-team.
Poyet would like to keep Ustari at the Stadium of Light after the 27-year-old only penned a six month contract to join Sunderland in the January transfer window.
But Poyet will need to be at his most persuasive, with Ustari wary over being limited to a back-up role and attracting interest from elsewhere, most notably from Italian giants Lazio.
It has just not been meant to be for Westwood at Sunderland.
His run in the starting XI during his maiden campaign on Wearside was halted by illness – a chance seized upon emphatically by Simon Mignolet – and after playing second-fiddle to the Belgian for so long, he was desperate to take his chance this season.
But the colander defence overseen by Paolo Di Canio, followed by a season-ending shoulder injury, turned the campaign into a nightmare for Westwood and his departure is now expected to be formalised this summer when his contract expires.
Several Championship clubs are keeping tabs on the luckless Republic of Ireland international, with Blackburn thought to be foremost among those admirers.
Relegation from League One with Carlisle will have been an eye-opener for Pickford after spending the final three months of the season on loan at Brunton Park.
But the 20-year-old is gradually building up his portfolio of competitive experience after 13 appearances for League Two Burton earlier in the campaign.
The highly-rated Pickford is likely to remain third-choice stopper at the Stadium of Light next season and will hope his development continues with another loan move.
The Sunderland skipper’s partnership with former Manchester United team-mate Wes Brown was one of the key components of the club’s transformation under Gus Poyet.
O’Shea looked a different player to the one who had been forced to guide Valentin Roberge and Modibo Diakite through baby steps at the start of the campaign.
Fitness permitting, O’Shea and Brown will remain at the forefront of Poyet’s plans next season in the twilights of their careers.
But with only a year remaining on each of the veteran’s contracts, Poyet will have to boast half an eye on the future in securing a more youthful understudy this summer.
Three red cards could not take the gloss of a remarkable Indian summer for Brown, who rejected the offer of having his contract paid up a year ago after a torrid spell on the treatment table.
Brown may not be as nimble as he once was, but he has shown all his class and experience since returning to the fold. The former England international was as crucial to Sunderland staying up as Connor Wickham at the other end.
Poyet was fortunate to have a fully fit Brown available and he will be desperate for the centre-half to remain injury-free next season.
At 34, and with 12 months remaining on his Sunderland contract, it could well be the final season of a vastly-decorated career.
Only a broken foot sustained while playing for the Under-21s prevented Bardsley from joining Fulham last August after being banished from the first-team picture
by Paolo Di Canio.
But Bardsley’s transformation from public enemy number one to a reliable, dogged performer under Poyet was an emotional one for the full-back, who would go on to become Sunderland’s record appearance maker in the Premier League.
Bardsley is open to remaining at the Stadium of Light, despite Sunderland’s previous attempts at contract talks this season falling flat.
Yet the sticking point has been the length of contract on the table and with significant interest from elsewhere – notably West Ham – Bardsley may feel greater job security is to be gained by moving on.
There was an air of Nyron Nosworthy surrounding Vergini’s contrast of slick touches intermingled with basic errors at the start of his Sunderland career.
But it is habitually a tall order for South Americans to hit the ground running in the Premier League and after the pressure was eased on Vergini by moving him to right-back, he looked a far more comfortable specimen.
The Argentine international has the flexibility to operate at full-back or centre-half, which Poyet sees as a significant benefit.
Poyet will look to convert Vergini’s loan deal into a permanent switch this summer and with a figure already agreed around the £500,000 mark, there should be few barriers towards the transfer progressing.
One of the first to put pen to paper during Roberto De Fanti’s spending spree last summer, Roberge has barely justified that show of faith.
In his 12 appearances, Roberge has not been a disaster, yet there are big question marks over whether he has the quality needed to be a Premier League regular – particularly his ability in the air.
Sunderland are expected to move Roberge on this summer – albeit that won’t be easy with two years remaining on a lucrative contract – as Poyet attempts to introduce fresh blood into his central defensive options.
There were a few sleepless nights on Christmas Day at the prospect of Diakite and Valentin Roberge forming Sunderland’s central defensive partnership at Everton on Boxing Day.
But in one of those classic twists, the French pair registered a clean sheet in helping Sunderland to the victory which would provide the catalyst for a vastly-improved set of results at the turn of the year.
It was not enough to prevent Diakite joining Fiorentina on loan in January though and Sunderland will hope the Serie A outfit take the ex-Lazio man on a permanent deal, with another two years to run on a big money contract at the Stadium of Light.
Certainly, Sunderland will be happy to simply remove Diakite from the wage bill, rather than looking for a hefty transfer fee.
Paolo Di Canio went on and on about the need for a specialist left-back last summer, yet in the end, the situation was fudged with Jack Colback rebranded and Andrea Dossena brought in as emergency cover.
It was no surprise that a left-back was at the top of Poyet’s January shopping list and Alonso proved his worth with a successful five-month loan spell which is likely to see Sunderland pursue a permanent deal this summer.
Fiorentina will surely be willing to listen to offers after Alonso struggled to make an impression in Serie A following his Bosman move last summer, while the Spaniard is thought to be equally keen to remain at Sunderland.
With Modibo Diakite moving in the opposition direction in January, there is clearly scope for a swap deal which would suit all parties.
It took around two months before Dossena finally made his Sunderland debut and he didn’t prove a let-down after thriving in a baptism of fire in the Wear-Tyne derby.
But from there, it went decidedly downhill for the former-Liverpool man after he was sent off for a horror challenge at Hull.
He struggled to convince he was either in shape or in form.
Dossena was always going to be a stop-gap measure though and his release before the end of the season merely brought forward the inevitable.
One member of the dressing room delegation who approached Sunderland’s board about Paolo Di Canio’s antics, that was arguably Cuellar’s most important contribution of the season.
The Spaniard’s second campaign at the Stadium of Light was plagued by injury problems, while he was down the pecking order under both Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet.
It was no surprise last week when Cuellar announced through social media that he was departing this summer when his contract ends, yet Sunderland will lose an excellent professional, who was a positive, experienced presence in the dressing room.
After a man of the match debut on the opening day against Fulham, Celustka looked like he could be a real find from Sunderland’s summer spending spree.
But it would prove to be a false dawn, as Celustka’s performances levelled out and he drifted in and out of the side.
The Czech international has returned to Turkish side Trabzonspor at the end of his loan and it would be a huge shock if Poyet made any attempt to bring him back.
H Part two, midfielders and forwards, continues tomorrow.