CONNOR Wickham insists those players who leave the Stadium of Light this summer can hold their heads high at helping Sunderland avoid the drop.
Sunderland’s final-day clash with Swansea was one step too far for the Black Cats yesterday after a four-game winning streak came to an abrupt end with a 3-1 defeat to the Welsh outfit.
But the hard work had already been done, with Sunderland safe from the threat of relegation and ending the campaign in a respectable 14th spot.
Now the challenge for head coach Gus Poyet and technical director Lee Congerton is to oversee an overhaul of the Sunderland squad, with eight players out of contract and five on loan.
Yet Wickham, one of those who will almost certainly still be at the Stadium of Light at the start of next season, says those who do depart can do so with pride intact after ensuring an eighth successive campaign of top-flight football on Wearside.
The 21-year-old told the Echo: “The club can do their bit this summer and I’m sure they’ll be busy.
“But the lads can be proud of what we’ve achieved.
“Even those who are out of contract or on loan, I’m sure none of them wanted to get relegated. We all dug in.
“A few of them will go and we’ll be left with a bare squad. But at least we didn’t get relegated.”
Sunderland never fully recovered after conceding twice within the opening 15 minutes yesterday, albeit Fabio Borini’s 10th goal of the season gave the Black Cats some brief hope of a comeback.
But while Wickham would have liked to end the campaign on a high note, the England Under-21 striker was not complaining at Sunderland’s 14th place finish after Poyet’s side were seven points adrift of safety with six games to play. “Obviously, we would have liked to finish with a win, but we’re just happy to be still in the Premier League next summer,” added Wickham.
“Being safe going into the last game has made us comfortable.
“It was disappointing to end with a defeat, but I think we can take spirit from what we’ve achieved this season.
“Not so much finishing where we have, but, considering the circumstances we were in four weeks ago, I think we can hold our heads high and be proud of what we’ve done.
“We’ve worked hard – it’s not been easy playing Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United away.
“We’ve got ourselves out of the position we were in, so to get out of it with a game to go has been good.
“After we knew we were safe, after the West Brom game (in midweek), it does ease the nerves.
“You can relax and the pressure is almost gone.
“To be fair, we’ve still worked hard.
“We haven’t ended on a high, but we can enjoy the summer now, come back in July and work harder to be better next season.”