SUNDERLAND'S season ended in a whimper on a remarkable last day of the season, but Martin O’Neill declared himself "delighted" with it.
The Black Cats were bystanders on a dramatic day at the top of the Premier League. Manchester United’s 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light looked to have won their 12th title. When referee Howard Webb blew the full-time whistle on Wearside, they were top of the table.
But a dramatic Sergio Aguero winner in the fifth minute of added-time – City’s second at the end of regulation time – earned them a dramatic 3-2 win over Queens Park Rangers and their first championship since 1968.
Sunderland’s defeat ensured they ended the season with only two wins from their last 15 games.
Having looked well set for a top-eight finish in mid-March, they failed to win any of their last nine games, starting with their FA Cup exit to Everton, and finished 13th.
But manager O’Neill (pictured left) preferred to view the campaign in the context of the position he inherited when he took over. The day before his December 5 appointment, Sunderland dropped into the relegation zone. “I have been delighted with the team, absolutely delighted with the team,” he insisted. “Maybe on reflection – although I didn’t think at the time – the Everton game (a quarter-final replay) did have a disappointing effect on us. But I’m delighted we were in this division and we’ll plying our trade here next year. That’s all I could ask for.
“I’m not here to make excuses. We are where we are. We finished off the season and didn’t win too many games. There might have been an easing off when we reached what we considered our winning post – staying up.
“I’ve been delighted with the effort of the team.”
O’Neill’s final team of the season did not include Nicklas Bendtner on loan from Arsenal, who hinted before kick-off via Twitter he will not be back next season. “I chose not to pick him,” was O’Neill’s only explanation.
John O’Shea went off in the first half, raising fears the Republic of Ireland defender could miss the European Championships.
“He didn’t feel comfortable,” O’Neill said. “He was starting to feel his (calf) injury. He just didn’t feel confident at all about it. As he came off that was my thought (that he could miss Euro 2012). I haven’t really had chance to check with the physios. Maybe I’m jumping the gun but it might be a concern.”
Of the dramatic finale, O’Neill said: “It’s incredible really. As I said before the match we were very much the sideshow. Manchester City will have been hoping we might be able to do something but as it turns out they’ve been able to do it on their own.
“The last couple of minutes took me back a few years to my season at Celtic where we lost on goal difference (in 2003). It’s just about the most harrowing thoughts you can have – you start thinking about goals you could have scored over the course of the year and all these things.”
O’Neill looks certain to revamp his squad, which included three loan signings, none of whom are expected to be back.
“There’s no question you can see clearly we’ve got some work to do,” he admitted. “Let’s see what happens. We’ll take a little bit of time to reflect on that then try to get back to work as quickly as possible.”