Full-time: Sunderland 1 Swansea City 3
THERE have been so many ups and downs on Wearside this season that it is hard to know where to begin when it comes to assessing the campaign.
In the end, however, Sunderland signed off in exactly the same manner they had begun last August – with a home defeat to unfancied opposition. For all the merited celebration that accompanied what owner Ellis Short branded “The Greatest Escape”, perhaps it was only fitting that the final act of the season was a mildly unsatisfactory one.
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The Black Cats might have avoided relegation with one game to spare thanks to a remarkable run of recent results, but the successes of the last few games should not completely obscure the failings that had driven the club to the brink of the Championship. Yesterday's defeat was Sunderland's 11th at home in the league, a truly awful record that was only surpassed by Fulham.
For all that this season has contained some remarkable highs – the Capital One Cup final at Wembley, a double over Newcastle United, victories at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford – the lows have been harrowing in their scale.
Having recovered from the traumas inflicted by Paolo Di Canio, not to mention the damage of taking one point from their first eight matches, Sunderland looked to have tumbled back into the abyss when they collapsed in the wake of their defeat at Wembley.
Leaving Carrow Road and White Hart Lane in particular, it was impossible to foresee a scenario whereby they would still be playing in the top-flight next season, yet thanks to a combination of spirit, belief and astute man management from Gustavo Poyet, survival was secured. It was an extremely close run thing though, and no one wants to go through the same trauma next term.
As Poyet put it so succinctly on Wednesday night, 'If you play with fire often enough, you'll eventually get burned'. Since taking full control of Sunderland in 2008, Ellis Short must already feel like he has spent far too much of his time putting out fires.
Change is desperately required, yet paradoxically, off the pitch there is also a compelling need for some stability. Last summer, too much changed too soon. Twelve months on, and any restructuring should be part of a much clearer long-term vision.
The first thing to be resolved is Poyet's future, and while there are obvious sources of tension between the Uruguayan and those above him, not least the amount of power that is concentrated in the hands of the head coach, there should be sufficient common ground to negate the need for a parting of the ways.
After keeping Sunderland in the Premier League when all looked lost, Poyet deserves a greater say in the future direction of the club. At the same time, however, he must also accept that he will have to work within a structure that Short clearly believes in.
It is imperative things are agreed quickly as 13 senior players are either out of contract next month or due to return to their parent club at the end of a loan. As last summer proved, a complete squad overhaul has the potential to cause chaos.
Five members of yesterday's starting line-up were potentially playing their final game as a Sunderland player – Phil Bardsley, Seb Larsson and Jack Colback, who are all out of contract, and Santiago Vergini and Fabio Borini, who are only on loan.
Ideally, Poyet would probably not want to lose any of them, so while Borini's future is unlikely to be resolved until Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers decides on his own squad for next season, there is a need for some decisive discussions to take place in the next couple of weeks if other players are not to slip through the net when they could be persuaded to remain on Wearside.
That is not to say that more of the same will be good enough of course – this is not the first relegation battle that most of the current squad has been involved in – but it is to suggest that the chaos of last summer cannot be repeated. After all, of the 14 players that arrived under Di Canio and Roberto De Fanti, only two started yesterday's game.
When it came to that game, the emotional commitment that had been required to claim 13 points from a possible 15 meant that it was understandable that it was a game too far.
The intensity that had characterised the home wins over Cardiff and West Brom was nowhere to be seen, with passes going astray and loose balls barely being contested. As a result, the Black Cats found themselves two goals behind within the opening 15 minutes.
Both goals were well worked from a Swansea perspective, although both owed much to the kind of desperate defending that had been so prevalent a few months ago.
Bardsley, playing on the left of the back four, was at fault for Swansea's opener, allowing Nathan Dyer to get on the wrong side of him as he raced on to Wayne Routledge's through ball. Dyer steadied himself before chipping a deft finish past Vito Mannone.
Seven minutes later and it was John O'Shea's turn to be found wanting as he afforded Marvin Emnes far too much room on the edge of the area. Having received the ball from Wilfried Bony, Emnes spun away from O'Shea and drilled a fierce strike past Mannone's right hand.
The Dutchman is on loan at the Liberty Stadium from Middlesbrough, and it is anticipated Swansea will attempt to sign him permanently this summer. On the evidence of his performance yesterday, he certainly appears a completely different player to the one that sulked through the first half of the season at the Riverside.
Jonjo Shelvey almost added a Swansea third, curling narrowly past the right-hand upright, and while Sunderland roused themselves to strike the woodwork when Seb Larsson's cross flicked off Jordi Amat's head to wrong-foot Gerhard Tremmel, the hosts entered the interval having been distinctly second best.
They started the second half much more brightly, and pulled a goal back within five minutes of the break. Adam Johnson delivered an inswinging corner from the right, and Fabio Borini broke clear of his marker to glance home a near-post header.
Any hopes of a comeback were extinguished four minutes later though, as Swansea restored their two-goal advantage. Again, Sunderland's defensive resistance was almost non-existent, with Bardsley and Colback both turning away from Bony as he twisted on the edge of the area before drilling home via the base of the left-hand post.