Not too long ago, Sunderland fans had little to look forward too. Hovering dangerously close to the relegation zone after the first 13 games with just 2 wins, condemnation to the Championship seemed like a frightening possibility. And so when the news that Steve Bruce had been sacked filtered through, the majority of Mackems, myself included, rejoiced. It'd be rather unfair to be overly critical of Bruce. Afterall, under him, Sunderland were at one point as high as fifth, with UEFA Cup qualification seemingly in reach in the 2009-10 season. However, it simply cannot be denied that following Darren Bent's unexpected departure, the Black Cats began a steady decline, culminating in a disastrous start to the 2011-12 season. Bruce failed to replace Bent, with Asamoah Gyan simply not up to the task, and Nicklas Bendtner not exactly the man you'd have in mind to replace someone like Bent. When things go wrong, people need to be blamed, and in football, that person is usually the manager. Steve Bruce became the first manager to be sacked in the 2011-12 Barclays Premier League season.

                                                                          Larsson doing the MON

So what now then, for the Mackems? Enter Martin O'Neill. Make no mistake about it, Sunderland fans had been begging for this guy for ages and ages. A self-proclaimed Sunderland fan, with an extremely impressive record with Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa, he seemed the perfect choice. His job was simple, get the team out of the relegation battle, and keep it in the EPL for another season. Simples.

Almost 40,000 fans turned up at the Stadium of Light in December to welcome MON in the game against Blackburn. I sat in front of the TV decked in my tattered 2004-05 (remember that season?) jersey for the first time in ages. School work, exams and life coupled with a deteriorated Sunderland side meant I had given up on football, at least temporarily. To say the least, The Lads were quite rubbish in the first half. Blackburn had the upper hand throughout, and when Yakubu put the one-time PL champs ahead, I feared the worst. Things did not go any better in the second half. Time and time again, I suffered as Blackburn sent wave after wave to try and break the Sunderland defence. And then the turning point. In the 76th minute, a young Irishman by the name of James McClean was handed his debut, replacing Jack Colback. All of the sudden, Sunderland looked that more confident, and when David Vaughan rifled the ball into the back of the net, I think there was a mutual feeling amongst Sunderland fans that the tide had turned.

Sebastian Larsson scored the winner in that match with a dramatic 90th minute free kick. A narrow loss against Spurs, a win at QPR and a draw against Everton followed. Then, 3 straight wins, including a dramatic win against league leaders Manchester City. In December, the Mackems were staring at the relegation trapdoor, lying in 16th. At the time of writing, Sunderland are battling the two Merseyside teams and Fulham for 7th place.

Martin O'Neill has worked wonders, and he hasn't even changed the squad much. The former Nottingham Forest winger has that ability to get the most out of good but not superb players, and Sunderland are now a completely different side, without actually changing. With another season of the Premier League pretty much confirmed, can Sunderland bring their newly-found confidence into the new season? What can the Mackems achieve in 2012/13? Will they outdo the Geordies after Newcastle's stunning run (let's be honest here) this season? I'm no professional manager, but here is what I think should be done, and what I think can be achieved next season.

Players

                                  The team celebrates Nicklas Bendtner's goal against Liverpool

Martin O'Neill's number 1 priority once the season is over is to keep his team together. Under Steve Bruce you may have been forgiven for thinking the entire squad needed an overhaul, but MON has showed that the players were there all along. Every single member of the Black Cats have looked like new signings after MON arrived, and have shown that they are both talented individuals and team-players. Now I'll take a look at all the players individually, and give me 2 cents on what MON should do with them.

Goalkeepers

Sunderland have a major goalkeeping problem in that all 3 of their goalkeepers are extremely talented. Now, if we were Man Utd, who have the Champions League to play in addition to the EPL, FA Cup and League Cup, then I guess you would be able to give all 3 of them a shot between the sticks, but unfortunately, we are not in that position.

1) Craig Gordon - Scotland

Craig Gordon has not played all season, once again showing how darn fragile he is, which is annoying because people in the British Isles know he is a superb keeper. Bought for a record fee by Roy Keane, Gordon has been undisputed first choice in recent years. As good as he is though, he gets injured way too frequently. I remember watching Marton Fulop more than Gordon back in the Keane/Sbragia/early Bruce days, and it really is pointless keeping him when we have 2 other proven keepers in Simon Mignolet and Kieren Westwood. With that in mind, I think the best thing for both the club and Craig, is for him to leave for new pastures, as much as I like him. So long as it's not Newcastle or Boro'...

20) Kieren Westwood - Ireland

I think Westwood's season will be remembered for that terrific double save against Man Utd, with some even comparing it to Jimmy Montgomery's FA Cup double save. Overall, I think he's done a solid job, and if he can keep performing at the level he did (hopefully better) next season, then he deserves to be first choice for the League Cup, at the very least. A good backup to Mignolet.

22) Simon Mignolet - Belgium

Mignolet has not failed Sunderland on 1 occassion since returning against the first clash against Man City. He was terrific in that match at the Stadium of Light, and has been utterly amazing in the last few matches, saving the Black Cats from humiliation against Everton, and doing a superb job at the Etihad, before finally cracking in the last 10 minutes. I think without a doubt, Mignolet should be first choice for next season.

Defenders

With 8 defenders (10 if you include Kieran Richardson and Jack Colback) at his disposal right now, you wouldn't exactly say MON has a defensive problem right now. Only problem is, 3 are not fit (O'Shea, Brown, Bramble) and 2 are on loan only (Bridge, Kyrgiakos). Well, I'm just going to assume everyone will be fit by August, and that I can do whatever the heck I want with the team.

2) Phil Bardsley - Scotland

I think the fact that he has finally returned to the right wing after being on the left for some odd reason has brought the best out of Bardsley. He has shown to be in a slightly similar vein as Kyle Walker, though probably not as quick. Defensively he's shown to be tough to pass, as Gareth Bale discovered at the SoL, and he can score, proven at Goodison Park in the FA Cup. Must be kept, and first choice right-back without a doubt.

3) Wayne Bridge - England (LOAN - Manchester City)

It's been a bit of a mixed start to Bridge's Sunderland stint. He's been a bit lousy at times, but he's also been able to show why he's played for England, Chelsea and Manchester City. I think the key for Bridge is to get back to full fitness, because I still think he's a bit groggy after being left to rot at Man City after the arrivals of Aleksandr Kolarov and Gael Clichy. If money wasn't an issue, I think MON should sign him permanently as backup to Jack Colback. Knowing the money probably needed, it might be a bit of a problem, but it would be great if he could stay.

4) Michael Turner - England

Michael Turner is one of those players who can go from absolutely rubbish in one game, to fabulous the next, and then back to rubbsh. I rate Turner higher than most Sunderland fans I know (mind you, the only other Sunderland fans I know are on the official Facebook page..) but he needs to work on his consistency, no doubt about that. I think with Matt Kilgallon back, he will shine brighter than he has before, because it is evident that he enjoys a good working partnership with Kilgallon. I think MON should keep him on the first team as RCB.

5) Wes Brown - England

The 2 signings from Manchester have not impressed me to be honest. I don't think much about Wes Brown, and I think that the only reason why the club should keep him is as backup to any of the CB's. Kilgallon's return and Turner's recent performances mean that at the current rate, it would be criminal for Brown to be sent back to the starting 11. I think he shouldn't even be put on the bench, because I rate O'Shea higher. Either way, MON should keep him, because he has experience, and can play as a CB and a RB. Good to have players who can multi-task.

12) Matthew Kilgallon - England

I simply cannot stop praising this fellow. He's been phenomenal in almost every game he's started in, and he should be LCB alongside Turner without a doubt. Hopefully he'll be able to avoid anymore injury problems, because if we lose him again, it would be a terrible blow, as in my opinion, he is the best defender the Black Cats have at their disposal.

14) Jack Colback - England

I'm very well aware that he is actually a midfielder, but let's be frank, with Cattermole, Gardner, Vaughan and Meyler available as CM options, Colback would probably not get as many starts as he deserves. It's best that Colback be played as LB, because he has been impressive in that position in the two Man City clashes, and against Tottenham where he had an almost faultless performance, untill a slip-up in the last 10 minutes. His workrate is amazing, second only to Lee Cattermole it would seem, and he's quite good at applying pressure. MON should spend the break helping Colback complete his transformation into a left-back.

16) John O'Shea - Ireland

O'Shea has been rather similar to Turner. He can be great in one match, but leave you scratching your head in another. The only reason why I think Turner should get the nod instead of O'Shea is that I feel Turner has a good relationship with Kilgallon, and therefore would play better than he has before with more consistency. Just like Brown, O'Shea can play as RB too, and so I think MON should give him a place on the bench.

19) Titus Bramble - England

Unfortunately, the ex-Newcastle player has not been able to show MON what he's capable of due to injury, but under Steve Bruce, he had given some rather terrific performances. The question is, when needed, will he be able to perform? I'm prepared to say yes. I say put him on the bench, alongside O'Shea and Westwood. 

25) Sotirios Kyrgiakos - Greece (LOAN - VFL Wolfsburg)

I don't even want to talk about him, because he has been horrendous. Has not shown to be a very capable defender, and was unfortunately unable to fill in Kilgallon's shoes when needed against Man City. Unless something miraculous happens before the end of the season, anyone with a brain would send him back to Germany.

Midfielders

6) Lee Cattermole - England

He can be a bit of an idiot sometimes, as demonstrated against Newcastle with a ridiculous red card, but in the end, he is an integral part of the team structure. He has endless energy, and puts it to good use. His work-rate is fantastic, and as captain, he does set a good example to the back-four. However, he is volatile, as demonstrated against his antics against Sandro in the Spurs clash. There's absolutely no reason to take him out of the team though. Keep him as captain, keep him in the team. Done.

7) Sebastian Larsson - Sweden

The Super Swede works absolute wonders with set pieces, even if he hasn't scored from any in recent times. It's hard to find any flaws in the ex-Birmingham winger. When the team is on the defence, he quickly runs back to support Bardsley, and when on the attack, he does his best to get on the end of crosses, as demonstrated when he scored the 3rd goal against Man City. I think the only issue is fatigue, which isn't his fault, as I do believe MON has overused him. But other than that, no issues with him, and a big part of MON's plans I'm sure.

8) Craig Gardner - England

Been a bit out of form recently, though he did an ok job at the Etihad and did a pretty good job against Spurs. He has shown good power with his shots, but just needs to work on his accuracy a bit. When required, he can double as a right-back, and he's no slouch as a defender either, as proven with his Bobby Moore-esque tackle on Gareth Bale. CM alongside Catts, I'm sure. Rarely smiles, but makes the fans smile, so who cares?

11) Kieran Richardson - England

Keeping Bridge and making Colback as left-back means Richardson has nothing much to do in defence, so a re-conversion (is that even a word?) to left winger is in order. Obviously I wouldn't be choosing him over McClean any time soon, but he is a very capable player, and would act as a good backup to the Irishman in case anything bad happens. Of course, hopefully nothing bad happens.

15) David Vaughan - Wales

Another of Sunderland's 'problems' is they have a tad too many centre-midfielders. Jack Colback gets taken out of the equation by being played as left-back, but nothing can be done unfortunately for ex-Blackpool player David Vaughan. Rotating him with Gardner may be the only option. When he sends a volley on its way, you probably wouldn't want to be a goalkeeper, and he knows how to play a cross and on the wing, shown against QPR.

18) David Meyler - Ireland

Even as a Sunderland fan, I wasn't impressed by Meyler's antics against Stoke. And the problem is, I'm not entirely sure what he's good at. When he does play, he tends to be anonymous, and obviously that isn't good. He's still only 22 though, so there's plenty of time to find his way with MON at the helm.

23) James McClean - Ireland

McClean's been the Sunderland revelation of the season, alongside Kilgallon, and I think it's fair to say one of the revelations of the entire BPL season. The moment he came on against Blackburn, you just knew we had something special on our hands. Certainly works hard and is full of energy, knows how to cross, and isn't bad at finishing, as demonstrated against Arsenal. An important part of the squad, and MON must hold onto him at all cost.

27) Ahmed Elmohamady - Egypt

As mentioned before, Larsson has been overused by MON, and I think he's forgetting there's this Egyptian fellow who wouldn't mind a few games. It's understandable why MON would be hesitant to use Elmo, but Larsson is human and does need rest, and I'm sure Elmo would appreciate getting a chance to prove himself. Has a reputation for accurate crosses and his work rate (as with almost every other Sunderland player), and I for one would certainly like to see more of him.

28) Stephane Sessegnon - Benin

'Who Needs Messi? We Have Sessi!' is a common chant, and while being compared to someone like the little Argentinean is certainly something big, I think Sessegnon does deserve a lot of praise for the performances he has given under MON. Sessegnon is not a striker, and he does not play well on the wings, I don't think Steve Bruce realized that, but all that matters is he is thriving under MON now, and like McClean, he's beginning to attract some unwanted attention from outsiders...

Strikers

9) Fraizer Campbell - England

Campbell made a flying return to football with goals against Middlesbrough and Norwich, however, fitness seems to have caught up with him, and he has failed to make the starting 11 in recent games due to some niggling issues. However, with a full return to fitness all but certain for next season, I think Campbell will prove to be an important part of Sunderland's campaign. If Bendtner does not stay, then Fraizer will be the number 1 striker hands down.

10) Connor Wickham - England

Wickham has the potential to be good, but so far he's just not been cutting it at Sunderland. When he missed the chance to score against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup replay, I'm sure almost everyone thought the chance was gone. Thank God for Sessegnon. I feel he is one of the team's lazier players, and he's not fast either so that is a handicap. I think what's best is for him to go on loan to an EPL club that will use him, akin to what's going on with Bendtner perhaps.

17) Ji Dong-Won - South Korea

The hero against the first encounter against Man City hasn't had much chance to show what he's capable of since the clash at the SoL as Bendtner and Campbell are the 2 strikers of choice. If the Dane leaves though, I think the young Korean may see doors open in front of him. He may have the potential to become a 'super sub', comparable to Solksjaer, but that is merely my opinion.

52) Nicklas Bendtner - Denmark

The much maligned man has become a hero of sorts recently. He's on great form, and with Arsenal happy with van Persie and with Podolski seemingly on his way to the Emirates, Bendtner may find that a permanent move to the SoL would be the best choice. Certainly, I think MON should try and get the Dane move permanently, and with Arsenal rumoured to be willing to sell for as little as 2.5 Million, it may be a bargain deal. He is slow, and he does not shoot very well, but he is excellent in the air, and if he does stay and is used instead of Campbell, then the best tactic would be to use McClean and Larsson to get balls into the box for Bendtner to head in.

Conclusion

As mentioned previously, MON's priority will be to make sure nobody leaves the club (except that Greek guy). Sunderland have a really good team, and you can't really spot any weaknesses. In Mignolet and Westwood, you have 2 goalkeepers who have proven themselves this season and are raring for more. If Bridge stays, there will be 8 defenders, meaning if the entire back-four were wiped out, you'll still be able to replace them without a problem. The midfielders are all strong, but it is absolutely crucial that MON make sure McClean and Sessegnon do not leave the club. Losing either one would be a disaster of epic proportions. Speaking of Sessegnon, another problem is the fact that if injured, there is no obvious replacement for him. The most obvious solution would be to change to a 4-4-2 formation, but the team would be lacking their creative soul. In my mind, the perfect backup would be Junior Hoilett, but I also feel the Canadian wouldn't be very open to a move to the SoL. If Bendtner stays, then Sunderland will have 2 very capable strikers to use, with Bendtner back on form and Campbell on the road to full recovery. Ji has the potential to be the next Asian superstar, but for Wickham, I just don't know.

My Ideal Squad

Mignolet, Bardsley, Turner, Kilgallon, Colback, Gardner, Cattermole (C), Larsson, McClean, Sessegnon, Campbell/Bendtner

My Ideal Bench

Westwood, Bridge, O'Shea, Elmohamady, Vaughan, Richardson, Bendtner/Campbell

Expectations

                                         MON picking up his Barclays Manager of the Month Prize

The mood on Wearside is certainly a good one. I think there's a unanimous thought of 'What If MON Had Come Earlier?' amongst Sunderland fans. What if indeed... It makes you drool really, and the 2012/13 season will be the time for everybody to show what they can do. Personally, I feel a top 5 finish is achievable, because if Newcastle can achieve it with their squad, then Sunderland can achieve it too. We've been in the top 5 before, and I think we can repeat that and stay there. I expect good runs in the two Cups, and I'm betting there'll be some silverware once next season is over. I won't say which trophy though!

My Predictions

  • Premier League: 5th-7th
  • FA Cup: Win/Semi-Finals
  • League Cup: Win/Semi-Finals