The Stadium of Light will be a place of celebration tomorrow. For a serial winner like John O’Shea it will be a slightly uncomfortable feeling.
The defender knows what his club have done this season is a significant achievement. Eight games in they had one point. With six left they were seven points adrift – and three of those matches were at Manchester City, Chelsea and O’Shea’s old club Manchester United.
At Old Trafford O’Shea was brainwashed with a mentality which makes celebrating not being one of the three worst teams in the country sit uneasily on his shoulders. Not that such thoughts will puncture the mood on the terraces at home to Swansea City tomorrow.
“Congratulations is a strange word because it (relegation) is something we feel we shouldn’t be near if you’re talking about the squad that we have, the belief that we have and the quality,” he admits. “And yet after eight games to have one point and we were looking up the table for 99% of the season... it was difficult. But credit to the manager, the staff and the squad because we stuck to the ideas the manager was trying to get across to us.
“I think you saw that, especially in the last few weeks, with how we played, whether it be keeping clean sheets, or keeping our discipline when we conceded an early goal and then going on to win games at very difficult grounds in the Premier League.
“It’s a small token of congratulations but it’s a strange one. Look, we’re delighted – don’t get me wrong because that dressing room afterwards was absolutely buzzing. But we have to recognise we have to start next season much better and that’s something we’ll be looking to do.”
This season will hold a special place in the former European and English champion’s special career.
“It’s very close (to being the highlight) – because of the points we were down and the games we still had to play,” he says. “But we’ve done it and we’ve done it stylishly as well. It would have to rank up there amongst it all because we were dead and buried and everybody had written us off.
“But we’ve come good with great football, great results and, done it with a game to spare.
“It just shows the ability was always here – once we eventually got it into our heads how the manager wanted us to play.
“He didn’t just want us to be just a counter-attacking team. He also wanted us to keep the ball for longer periods which would lead to less defending for everyone and also causing other teams more problems because we were keeping possession. Slowly but surely we were getting ideas into our heads and you saw that, especially in the last few weeks.”
With the nightmare averted, the key now is ensuring next season is different. Relegation battles – some successful, some not – have been a staple of Sunderland’s Premier League existence. It has to stop.
“That’s the big thing,” O’Shea readily acknowledges. “The manager spoke about it a few weeks ago. He was talking about trying to find something – whatever it was. He wasn’t pointing the finger at anyone. He was just saying there is something there, somewhere, we have to put right.
“You’ve got to look at the situation of contract issues with players (12 of this squad are not due back for pre-season), the ages of players, the players we are signing. All of those things. It’s massive.”
That so many players gave so much for a club not prepared to commit to them only added to what Sunderland have done this season. Jack Colback, Sebastian Larsson (pictured below), Fabio Borini, Santiago Vergini and Marcus Alonso played big parts in the sprint to the finish line, as Phil Bardsley and Ki Sung-Yeung had in dragging them back into the race earlier in the season.
“It was tricky here,” O’Shea comments. “You can imagine. Lots of lads were out of their contracts and what were they doing with their futures and different things? It was difficult for a lot of them but they showed fantastic attitudes and that was what we needed. Hopefully if that can be less volatile than it was this season, that will definitely help.
“It’s important because sometimes when a team has got relegated there’s 10 players out of contract and you think ‘Could that be a reason? Were there minds elsewhere?’ You could never accuse any of the lads at this place of that because I’ve witnessed at first hand how hard they’ve worked and the players themselves, they’re so professional.”
If a rapid turnover of players has been a regular feature of Sunderland’s summers, the changing of managers has been a constant of their seasons. No wonder they keep finding themselves at the wrong end of the table.
“You can’t keep changing your managers,” says O’Shea. “Hopefully we can all come together now and hopefully build for the summer and the months ahead.
“It’s fairly clear that we should stick with the current manager. The cup runs were brilliant, even if we were disappointed that we couldn’t hold onto the 1-0 lead against Manchester City (in the League Cup final). We had them up until then and although we didn’t want to say it at the time I think it did affect us because we went on a poor run and we had six or seven defeats and we wondered what had happened.
“We were losing games where we should have had wins or draw and we were thinking ‘We can’t let this happen’.That’s where the manager stuck to his guns in training. He told us you’ve got to pass the ball, create, defend up the pitch.”
The first step towards improvement starts tomorrow. The Black Cats could conceivably end the season in 12th.
“We want to win on Sunday now as well,” says O’Shea. “I’m sure the Swansea boys will be wanting to give their manager a nice present after he’s just been announced as their permanent manager for the next few seasons. But we want to give our fans something too.
“Having all our families here will make it a day to enjoy and reflect on a mad, mad season.”