What to make of Sunderland’s season? It depends what mood you and they are in.
There probably isn’t a more suitable nickname in the Premier League than the one adopted by the men from the Stadium of Light. Black cats are either considered lucky or unlucky depending on what culture you adopt, and the Black Cats from the north-east are either good or bad too.
Mackems supporters are likely to opt for the latter description for the majority of their club’s season though, even if Sunderland’s struggles haven’t been easily apparent to the rest of us.
Bar a six-game winless streak which took in all of October and much of November, Sunderland and boss Martin O’Neill have always just done enough to maintain an air of control. Wins like the Boxing Day success over Manchester City – a now customary victory following on from last season’s – gave the impression that everything was serene on the surface, but below deck those black cats’ legs were whirring wildly.
Now, Sunderland sit just five points and three places above the relegation zone. They have lost all three of their games in February and now face what has suddenly become a huge home match against Fulham, another of the division’s great inconsistencies, on Saturday afternoon.
There are clearly talented performers in O’Neill’s team.
Steven Fletcher has proven himself to be a genuine Premier League forward, Stephane Sessegnon is capable of fantastic performances when he’s in the mood, and Simon Mignolet looks to be a goalkeeper who is destined to play for one of the big boys one day.
The individual talents are certainly there for O’Neill, but as can be true with every individual, the team has far too many bad days to compensate for the good.
Only seven of Sunderland’s 27 Premier League games this season have ended in wins, and whilst that is more than the five clubs who currently sit below them it is clearly not enough given the talents they have at their disposal.
Last season, when O’Neill entered the club in December and steered them away from the relegation zone and eventually to within two points of a top half finish, the likes of Sessegnon, Seb Larsson and James McClean all starred.
The arrivals of Adam Johnson and Fletcher saw new, potentially exciting elements added to that trio, and whilst the Scot has been an undoubted success given his 10 goals over the campaign, Johnson’s inconsistencies have mirrored those of his team.
The sometime England winger is capable of some fine performances on his day, but his day doesn’t come around often enough – a fact borne out by his struggles to break into the Manchester City team and his eventual sale by Roberto Mancini.
O’Neill has recently added Danny Graham to the mix, although the forward’s similarity to Fletcher does leave concerns that the pair won’t be able to form a potent partnership. The French midfielder Alfred N’Diaye looks to be an energetic enough arrival, but there remains a belief that Sunderland failed to strengthen in key areas during January. They are still playing midfielders at full-back regularly.
All of that adds to the often makeshift nature of a team and club who look as though they are not sure where to be. They need to be out of relegation trouble obviously, but that isn’t enough for a club of Sunderland’s stature.
Their inconsistent nature simply can’t be allowed to go on, especially if they want to avoid getting sucked in to the battle at the bottom.
Sunderland need to find themselves, and find a few more wins in the process.