POLLING of a slightly less consequential nature has been running over recent days, in the contest to elect Sunderland’s Player of the Season.
Goalkeepers have taken the crown in each of the last two years after Simon Mignolet and then heir Vito Mannone received the most ticks next to their name at the ballot box organised by the branches of the club’s supporters associations.
Ultimately, it’s tough to look beyond Larsson or Cattermole for the accolade
Having two stoppers triumph in successive years has been a pointed signal to Sunderland’s problems.
They have often been the busiest players on the pitch and have had plenty of opportunity to shine.
Phil Bardsley – a former winner of the award – remarked on it last Spring when he rightly added a caveat to his congratulations to Mannone by stressing that an outfield player ought to be taking the accolade.
But during two years of dire relegation dogfight struggle, it was tough to look beyond the goalkeeper when considering a stand-out performer.
It hasn’t got any better this time around, with Sunderland keeping everything crossed that it’s not third time unlucky in the fight for survival.
But despite the team’s struggles, who deserves some individual recognition for their efforts?
Here are the five leading contenders before the results are revealed next Tuesday:
The firm favourite after a campaign where he has been one of Sunderland’s few Mr Consistents.
Larsson’s tally of three goals and three assists is a modest one from 32 starts, but often it’s the Swedish international’s contribution off-the-ball which is just as crucial.
Just look how Jack Rodwell laboured to fill the void left by Larsson’s Duracell Bunny engine during his recent two-game suspension against Crystal Palace and Stoke.
What has been most pleasing about Larsson’s performances this season is that he has proved his contribution towards last year’s Great Escape was no false dawn.
For almost two years, Larsson had struggled to adapt to life in the middle of the park and, for much of last season, many fans would happily have seen him depart on a free transfer when his contract expired.
But the new environment finally clicked and he has thoroughly justified his new contract as an integral cog in Sunderland’s midfield.
Already crowned North East football writers’ Player of the Year, Cattermole is Larsson’s principal rival for the award after continuing his development as Sunderland’s talisman.
Cattermole is still having to learn how he can influence proceedings when he is walking a yellow-card tightrope – albeit he has now managed to avoid being sent off since November 2013.
But when Cattermole plays, Sunderland are a better team. A much better team.
His absence through injury was notable at the start of 2015.
Sunderland won only once in the Premier League during that time.
Would they have suffered humiliation at Bradford with Cattermole in the team either?
While John O’Shea may have the armband, Cattermole is the natural leader in Sunderland’s ranks and he sets the tone for the intensity which needs to be generated.
A modest return of six goals has not quite fulfilled the high hopes for Wickham after his contribution to the Great Escape, even though he has been out of position for far too much of this season.
Wickham’s final ball too often lets him down at the end of those charging runs which have become a characteristic of his game, while there was an air of apathy around the £8million man in the final days of Gus Poyet’s reign.
But Wickham has regularly been Sunderland’s biggest attacking threat this season, and manages to cover a deceptive amount of ground.
It’s easy to overlook that he has only just turned 22 too.
While Larsson and Cattermole are likely to finish ahead of him for the main Player of the Year award, surely Wickham is a decent shout for the young player prize.
Setting aside the blunder against Southampton last weekend, Pantilimon has arguably been Sunderland’s best summer signing.
It wasn’t easy to take the place of the popular Mannone, but since getting his chance in November, the ex-Manchester City man has never remotely looked like losing his place.
While Pantilimon’s distribution remains the weak part of his game, he uses his 6ft 8in frame to dominate his area. That’s what you want your goalkeeper to do.
If Sunderland are relegated, Pantilimon will be one of those that several Premier League sides are casting their eyes at.
The demands of starting every game this season have perhaps taken their toll on O’Shea over recent weeks, after being horribly exposed against Crystal Palace and Aston Villa.
But for much of the first half of the season, O’Shea was one of Sunderland’s most consistent performers – arguably playing as well as he had done since his move from Manchester United.
Had Sunderland boasted sufficient strength in depth defensively, then a breather may have made all the difference for the captain and enabled him to maintain that form.
Surely that will have to be the case next season, regardless of what division Sunderland are in.
ULTIMATELY, it’s tough to look beyond Larsson or Cattermole for the accolade.
The creative element of Sunderland’s midfield has been questionable for much of this season. It’s why January signing Jermain Defoe was never going to immediately solve all the goalscoring shortcomings.
But for the engine room, water-carrying element of the side, Larsson and Cattermole have done their jobs.
While the attitude of some of their team-mates has rightly been singled out for criticism, the midfield pair’s will-to-win has rarely wavered.
Without wishing to dampen down the contribution of the duo though, wouldn’t it be nice though to be recognising some goal-scoring prowess or attacking devilment?
Stephane Sessegnon is the only forward-thinking player to have claimed the award over the last five years. That is one of many problems Sunderland need to address.