Put simply, it was a woeful campaign for Sunderland. Martin O'Neill spent over £20million in the summer on the likes of Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher, but the team found themselves struggling for much of the season, with the players showing a distinct lack of spark and passion. Defensively the team were a shambles, with Player of the Season Simon Mignolet saving them from heavy defeats on multiple occasions. A lack of creativity in midfield (Johnson failed to live up to the hype) and a negative playing style meant goals were very difficult to come by, with Fletcher apparently the only player capable of hitting the back of the net.
Sunderland were knocked out of both domestic cups by lower league opposition (Middlesborough and Bolton) and started to slide alarmingly down the table. They added Danny Graham to the squad in January but he never settled and by March the board had had enough. After a run of nine games without a win they decided to part ways with O'Neill, taking a risk with the explosive and controversial Italian Paolo Di Canio in attempt to avoid the disastrous prospect of relegation.
There were early rumours of dressing room unrest, but after a spirited defeat at Chelsea, Di Canio masterminded two fantastic victories, 3-0 at local rivals Newcastle and 1-0 at home to Everton, which gave the team some breathing space. A horrific 6-1 defeat at Aston Villa failed to derail the Black Cats, as draws against Stoke and Southampton secured 17th place, 3 points above the relegation zone and set them up for another season in the Premier League.
Di Canio is now in the process of shaping a new multi-national squad to challenge the Top 10 next season, with the help of the recently appointed Italian duo Roberto De Fanti and Valentino Angeloni, taking the roles of director of football and chief scout respectively. There is little doubt there is huge potential if they can turn it around - Sunderland have wildly passionate fans with the 7th highest attendance last year despite a relegation dogfight and unwatchable football at times, so the change of direction from cut-from-the-same-mould-Keane-Bruce-O’Neil (who tended to focus on second-rate British players) could breathe new life in to the club.
- Steven Fletcher: What a vital signing Fletcher turned out to be. Many raised eyebrows at his £12million fee, but despite spending the final 2 months of the season injured he was the only Sunderland player to reach double figures in the Premier League and there is little doubt that his goals combined with the performances of the man below were the difference between survival and relegation.
- Simon Mignolet: As mentioned during the season review, Mignolet was named Sunderland's Player of the Season and for good reason. The Belgium keeper's shot-stopping and command of his penalty area allowed the Black Cats to hold on to 0-0 draws and 1-0 wins when under the cosh and his performances have been rewarded with a £9million move to Liverpool. He'll be sorely missed next season.
- John O'Shea: Di Canio on his first 2 months working with JOS: "I didn't have any doubt about him. In a natural way in the morning he's first out for the warm-up and he's always top of the group, always trying to encourage others, which is important, always on his toes. Sometimes when I talk about tactical situations I see the young players just shut their mouths and look to the sky. John O'Shea always listens. He's positive and intelligent and he's been terrific for me." Sounds like the stand-in Sunderland captain could be given the role permanently next season, with Lee Cattermole expected to leave the club.
- Danny Rose: A huge success story, the Tottenham loanee was a stand-out performer at left-back and in midfield, winning Sunderland's Young Player of the Season award. If Andre Villas-Boas decides to give Rose another season on loan, one would guess Sunderland would be at the front of the queue.
- Adam Johnson: AJ is one of the most frustrating players in the league. Blessed with the ability to beat a man, deliver a quality cross and shoot from distance, his move to the Stadium of Light should've been the spring-board to work his way back in to the England set-up. Alas, he failed to convince and a perceived lack of effort meant the fans were quickly on his back. The player himself has admitted it was the worst season of his career but he sounds keen to work harder and prove himself to the Wearside faithful.
- James McClean: What happened to James McClean? He was a favourite fantasy selection in 2011-12 and won Sunderland's Young Player of the Season, but he fell off the radar completely last season and failed to make the bench on numerous occasions. He also had some Twitter mishaps which led to him falling out with Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, so all in all it was a season to forget for the young midfielder. Will Di Canio give him another chance?
- Danny Graham: He should've been collecting a League Cup winners medal for Swansea in February. Instead Graham found himself in a relegation battle at Sunderland and from a personal stand-point, he's had a nightmare. Despite featuring in 11 league games he failed to score a single goal and it's possible he'll find himself heading for a quick exit this summer. Cardiff have been linked to the 27-year-old and such a move may be best for all parties.
Di Canio says he's on a mission to bring in 10 players, while he has shipped out Titus Bramble, Matthew Kilgallon, Ryan Noble, Simon Mignolet and Ahmed Elmohamady. Sunderland have already signed defender Modibo Diakite from Lazio, defender Valentin Roberge from Maritimo and midfielder Cabral from Basel on free transfers, as well as goalkeeper Vito Mannone from Arsenal They have also added young strikers Duncan Watmore and David Moberg Karlsson, although both are likely to start in the development squad, so there is still a need for a goalscorer to assist Steven Fletcher as well as more depth in other positions, including some creativity and steel in midfield and some new fullbacks.
- Gary Hooper: Sunderland need a proven goalscorer and the Celtic man appears to fit the bill having scored 31 goals last season, but it would be interesting to see how he handles the step up to the English Premier League. A fee of £7million has been suggested.
- Scott Parker: The England midfielder has been told he can leave Spurs, and he would be an improvement on the current central midfield options, but Fulham and QPR are also interested and Parker may prefer to stay in London.
- Tom Huddlestone: Another midfielder surplus to requirements at White Hart Lane with Sandro returning from injury and Paulinho set to arrive shortly. One of the best passers in the league, Huddlestone would add some much needed creativity, although question marks remain over his mobility and long-term fitness.
- Benjamin Mendy: Reports suggest Sunderland are close to a deal for the 18-year-old Le Havre left-back after agreeing a fee for the player. He is highly rated and would fill the gap left by Danny Rose's departure.
- Jozy Altidore: Vastly improved since an unsuccessful loan spell with Hull City back in 2010, the striker scored an impressive 31 goals in 41 appearances for Alkmaar last season. Di Canio is keen on the American striker, but he will have to raise the last offer, which was rejected out of hand.
- Lucas Orban: Argentine left-back Orban has been linked with a move to the North-East all summer, but he may not be required if Sunderland snap up Mendy.
- Matej Vydra: Only 21 years old, Vydra scored 22 goals while on loan with Championship side Watford last season. Udinese are believed to want £8m for the Czech international but may accept another loan deal, with Sunderland reportedly at the front of the queue.
- Charis Mavrias: The 19-year-old attacking midfielder is highly rated in Greece and has already won two caps for the senior national side. With Stephane Sessegnon rumoured to be leaving the club this summer, Sunderland will need to find a replacement and Mavrias' pace, dribbling skills, vision and ability to play on the wing seem to fit the bill. Panathinaikos have stated that a deal has already been agreed.
Where do you see Sunderland finishing next season?