IN the first Friday Spotlight column last August, I made a few predictions about how I saw Sunderland’s season panning out and (a tad unwisely) promised to revisit them at the end of the campaign.
I thought back then it would be amusing and unusual to hold myself to public account, seeing as all sports pundits make pre-season prophecies that they quietly forget or selectively remember further down the line.
But if I was my own PR person, I probably would have taken myself to one side and counselled caution – these things can get messy.
So, in order to protect myself, and based on the knowledge that there are always fewer readers at the end of a column than there are at the beginning, here’s a review of my predictions in descending order of prescience:
1) “I believe Sunderland can do better in the cups than the league – they could be perfect for the challenge of one-off games.”
* coughs modestly, acknowledges applause.
2) “As for the derbies, I think Sunderland will win at home and either win or draw at St James’s Park.
“Deep down I’ve got a hunch that Sunderland have every chance of their first league double over Newcastle since the 1966/67 season.”
* oh stop it now, you’re embarrassing me.
3) “I think Sunderland can finish in the top 10 this season – possibly even higher than the halfway mark – should Paolo get the creative playmaker, attacking left-back (and possibly winger and striker) he seeks before the window closes.
“I’m still not sure about the thinness of the squad as it stands and the head coach needs the team to gel from the start.”
* Ah well, not so good with this one.
Paolo did get his play-maker (Ki) and striker (Borini), while his attacking left-back was Andreas Dossena, but, unfortunately, the team did not gel early on.
An eventual 14th-place finish was an underachievement on what I predicted at the start of the season, but a massive improvement on what I would have predicted barely a month ago!
4) “I expect Emanuele Giaccherini to have a good debut season for Sunderland, but to be outshone by an Adam Johnson finally fulfilling his potential.”
* The Italian will probably be disappointed with a season which saw him start as a first-team regular, drop out of the picture midway through the season and finish it as a supersub. But the midfielder still contributed four goals and four assists.
He was outshone, though, by Johnson, who took a while to get going but finished the campaign as joint top scorer with 10 goals and was way out in front with eight assists. It was the form which won him the January Player of the Month award and had him talked about as an outside candidate to make Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad.
5) “I think soon-to-return Steven Fletcher will finish Sunderland’s top scorer this season but will be grateful to the generosity of strike partner Jozy Altidore for many of his goals.”
* Hmm. Not the best of predictions.
Fletcher had a season with more comebacks than Sinatra and never really got going. His season started on the eve of September and ended in mid-March with only three goals to his credit.
In all, EIGHT Sunderland players scored as many goals or more than the £12million man over the course of the campaign and, as for teeing up goals, Adam Johnson ended the campaign with most assists.
6) I expect Keiren Westwood and Vito Mannone between them – if not to erase the memory of Simon Mignolet’s departure – at least to ease it.*
* Well, I was half right!
Westwood, who the Echo has confirmed today has parted company with the club, had another season to forget.
In the previous campaign, Mignolet’s excellence prevented the Irishman making a single Premier League appearance. This season, he started the first 10 and did not keep a clean sheet in any of them!
Cometh the moment, cometh Mannone. The Italian deputised for the injured Westwood in November and never looked back. He became a hero with fans and went on to win the club’s Player of the Year award – just as Mignolet had done the season before.
7) “I hope, but don’t think, that Wes Brown will make a dozen appearances this season. I believe that Modibo Diakite will though, and go on to be this year’s John Mensah – a class act whenever he takes the pitch.”
* Oh dear!. Wrong on Brown. Wrong on Diakite.
Brown was to make 31 appearances in all competitions and be fundamental to Sunderland’s survival. Diakite was involved in just eight games for the Black Cats, rarely looked convincing and was offloaded on loan to Fiorentina.
8) Young player of the season? I’ll tip David Moberg Karlsson – young enough to know no fear.
* Oh dear, oh dear.
It just goes to show you shouldn’t be too impressed by one pre-season moment – the Swede’s fine goal in the Hong Kong tournament suggested great promise.
But the Roberto De Fanti signing never delivered. The 20-year-old made just one Sunderland appearance in the 4-2 Capital One Cup win over MK Dons in August. He was loaned out to Kilmarnock but was involved in just four games for the Scottish outfit.
Predictions finished, and there you have it – a mixture of good, bad and indifferent.
I would like to say that description mirrored Sunderland’s season, but that would be untrue – Sunderland’s season was a mixture of horrendous and amazing with little in between.
It was a season in which they took just one point from their first 24 but still proved good enough to reach a Wembley final; a season in which more than 90 per cent of it was spent in the bottom three yet still they finished 14th; a campaign in which they beat Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United yet contrived to lose to Hull (three times!).
Who would have predicted that?
But then, nothing should surprise Sunderland fans…..