As we watched the likes of Birmingham, Blackpool and West Ham drop out of England's top tier of football and saw Manchester United lift the Premier League trophy, with the sides below competing for European places, it was easy to turn a blind eye to Sunderland's alarming change in fortune at the tail end of last season.

The Black Cats finished the season in a credible 10th place, but it could have been so much better for Steve Bruce's men if the majority of his squad had not fallen to the wayside with serious injuries heading into the important final months of the campaign.

Sunderland won just three of their last fourteen games at the end of last term, losing ten and drawing one. The side were in crisis and the fans frustrated. Another disappointing end to a season which began with a great deal of promise. The home victory over Manchester City in August and the outstanding 3-0 away win at Stamford Bridge in November the main highlights.

But now the new season nears, the injury scares are a distant memory and a number of new faces have been brought in, so can Sunderland go that one step further and provide their fans with a memorable season which will live long in the history books of the side from the North East?

I believe they can.

Asamoah Gyan has had an unbelievable year. Signed by Bruce to grace the turf at the Stadium of Light, the Ghanian striker hasn't looked back since his impressive World Cup campaign in South Africa. And the boy can dance.

His goals were vital throughout the core of the season and having a player with such flair and personality must work wonders behind the scenes and on the training ground at the club. Strange then that Gyan only finished fourth in Sunderland's 'Star Man' ratings. 

The Black Cats encorporated a system on their website where the fans would vote for their Man of the Match and a scoring system would eventually crown one player as the 2010/2011 Star Man at Sunderland.

Ahmed Elmohamady, Simon Mignolet and Steed Malbranque completed the top spots and the Sunderland faithful will be delighted that all three will remain at their club for the start of next season.

Even after singling out Sunderland's top players from last season, there is still some considerable talent left unmentioned. Bardsley, Gordon, Sessegnon and Campbell are all players capable of match winning performances and this adds more fuel to the fire.

Add to this the signings of Gardner and Larsson from Birmingham, Wickham from Ipswich and Ji-Dong Won from Chunnam Dragons and the Stadium of Light begins to shine once more.

Larsson and Gardner helped Birmingham to League Cup glory over Arsenal and were among just a couple of players who really impressed down at St Andrews as Birmingham dropped into the Championship this year.

The jury is still out on highly rated youngster Wickham and twenty-year-old Dong Won with the Premier League a massive step up from the leagues they have recently joined from, however, the South Korean has an impressive record for his nation so far, netting six times in eleven appearances and the high amount of interest from big clubs regarding Wickham surely suggests that he is 'One to Watch'.

Many will argue that the departure of Jordan Henderson to Liverpool will leave the Sunderland midfield vulnerable but the arrival of Gardner will look to fix this problem and with Cattermole and Colback looking to grow and improve, there is a recipe for success brewing in Steve Bruce's footballing cauldron.

The Sunderland squad will now look toward a long, hard pre-season and, if their key players remain injury-free, I can see this talented side venturing higher and higher up the Premier League table.

First Five Fixtures

Liverpool (A)
Newcastle (H)
Swansea (A)
Chelsea (H)
Stoke (H)