Could Craig Gardner be on his way out of Wearside? Chris wouldn't mind too much if he was...
Well you lucky devils, it's about time that I gave you all my views on this season. Having put up with views of those much more qualified than myself, it feels a little odd, but at the same time I'm also in excellent company, so maybe it's an honour.
Anyway, I'm not going to bore you with my thoughts on this up and down season just yet, that's coming very shortly. Are you excited? Are you? You bloody well should be...
Player Of The Season?
Chris: I sense, somehow, I won't be alone in this choice. It's the obvious one, but it's oh so right as well.
Yep, it's pretty much impossible to look past Stephane Sessegnon for this category. Devoid of purpose and displaying only fleeting glimpses of quality during his first six months on Wearside, this has truly been a breakout season for our man from Benin. With trickery in abundance and a willingness to graft for a side that now strives for defensive solidity as its founding principle, Sessegnon was integral in the revitalisation upon Martin O'Neill's arrival at the Stadium of Light. Recent comments have broadened hopes that the little man may extend his stay here beyond this summer - if he does move on, however, Sunderland can now expect to recoup a hefty fee to reinvest elsewhere in the side.
A special mention here must also go to Lee Cattermole. Much maligned and seemingly headed for the exit before Christmas, his own turnaround this season has been remarkable. With two performances that quelled the might of a certain Yaya Touré his own personal highlights, it is a shame that the loss of his head at the Sports Direct Arena - something which Sessegnon too was guilty of - has been allowed in many minds to overshadow an excellent second half of the season for the skipper.
Young Player Of The Season?
Chris: Simon Mignolet. Perhaps going against the grain here - I'd expect James McClean or Jack Colback to be most people's favoured winner - the Belgian stopper is something of an unsung hero between the sticks.
Still only 24-years-old, Mignolet has been excellent this season. Though his campaign has been infused with the odd glaring mistake, something which is simply a fact of life for young goalkeepers, his record of 11 clean sheets in 28 league games puts him up in the company of Thomas Sorensen when it comes to keeping Premier League strikers at bay. His double save at Everton kept our cup dreams alive for at least ten more days, while were it not for a certain Shola Ameobi (boo, hiss), his penalty save against Demba Ba would have propelled him to hero status. It is a sign of O'Neill's faith in Mignolet that Craig Gordon, arguably the best keeper at the club but unable to prove his fitness, is likely to be let go this summer.
Best Signing Of The Season?
Chris: For those incredulous at my omission of James McClean in question (2), fear not, for here is where he gains his plaudits. £350,000 is a simply staggering figure given the debut season the Irishman has had. While much of the media has consistently touted the aforementioned Ba as the signing of the season, his no doubt hefty wages surely hand the honour to McClean.
Harking back to the style of wingers of old, his direct nature was evident from the moment he arrived on the scene and changed the game against Blackburn in O'Neill's opening game. Ten minutes and a victory later, and Sunderland realised they had a star in their midst. Now often the attention of two opposing players given his threat level, his call-up to Ireland's Euro 2012 squad is little more than this superb bargain deserves.
Most Disappointing Player Of The Season?
Chris: Unfortunately, despite the salvation from relegation, there've still been a few disappointments this year. Wes Brown's excellent start has since been plagued by the injury worries we knew all too well about. Connor Wickham too, has seen a fruitful beginning tail off into the treatment room.
For me though, the most disappointing player (of those that have played enough to merit such criticism) has been Craig Gardner. A few mind-boggling screamers aside - though they are of course most welcomed when they do come along - it is difficult to see what Gardner contributes when he doesn't score. He often looks lost when advancing with the ball out of defence, isn't blessed with great pace and regularly gets his positioning wrong. Take him out of midfield and he's actually a far better player - his best performances this season have come at right-back. That said, these have been fairly few and far between, and Gardner's first season on Wearside hasn't been particularly inspiring.
Goal Of The Season?
Chris: Craig Gardner at Wigan. *dons tin hat* Yes, I know I've just slagged him off, but even though I don't rate him, I simply can't be blind to this strike. Perhaps aided by mother nature and a stiff wind, this goal was nonetheless stunning. Lining up a free-kick from a ridiculous range with the clock ticking into first-half stoppage time, an absolute lashing with the outside of his boot saw the ball ping straight into the top corner. Precision placement, and simply unstoppable.
Notable mentions too for: Fraizer Campbell at home to Norwich, Stephane Sessegnon at home to Swansea and any number of Seb Larsson free-kicks.
Game Of The Season?
Chris: Despite the monotony of recent weeks, we've been involved in some crackers. The derby at the SDA was probably the most enthralling in years. QPR away was a real treat for neutrals, complete with dancing dogs in the away end. Manchester City at home provided perhaps the moment of the season, when Jiiiiiiiiiiii rounded Joe Hart, got snogged off some bloke still pissed from New Year's Eve, and we completed the smashingest of smash-and-grab victories.
For me though, it was our trip away to City. There were shades of Chelsea away last year, as we really took it to one of the league's top sides in their own back yard. Two desperately poor goals at the end took the shine off a little - we deserved all three points, don't doubt it - but that day we saw a glimpse of just how good we could become under this manager.
Who do you think Sunderland should be looking at buying this summer?
Chris: As luck would have it, we've been linked with two of my top three targets. Junior Hoilett would be an astonishingly good signing for the club - though I feel he is more likely to end up somewhere such as Spurs than at SR5.
Steven Fletcher would fit the mould perfectly. A prolific striker when you look at his goals-to-chances ratio, he's the kind of target man that would thrive in this team - think Bendtner with worse technique, but more goals and stronger.
The other I'd like to see here is Victor Moses. He's really shown his worth at the "business end" of the season, and he has the pace that O'Neill loves in his wingers.
Get those three and I'll be happy, but truth be told we probably need a couple of defenders and another striker too.
There's also talk of a clearout. Is there a player you think might not be as safe as they'd consider themselves?
Chris: Well, as I've already established, I'm not Craig Gardner's biggest fan. Given that I doubt he's on the smallest of wages, and we're not exactly skint on central midfielders, I'd get rid to the first decent offer.
Titus Bramble, too, should be on his way. Too much baggage.
If we can get a decent full-back or two, I wouldn't be surprised if Phil Bardsley made an exit also. Everyone loves a trier, and on his day he can be brilliant, but his defensive lapses are too frequent for a side looking to push on next year.
What was your personal highlight of the season?
Chris: Despite the cruel ending it came with: Newcastle away. My first ever visit to the Sports Direct Arena (I never visited "St James Park" either), it was a manic day completed by one of the most compelling games of our season.
That weekend had began for me with a stonking hangover (quelle surprise), and pretty much giving up on any hope of getting a ticket. Then, proving the brilliant comradeship of Sunderland fans, a complete stranger came to my aid.
By 2am on Sunday morning I was setting off on a minibus laden with fellow students, who were off on a charity mountain walk in Yorkshire. Dropping me off at Wetherby services - where the Sunday papers had yet to arrive - I contented myself for two hours with staring out the window at one I can assume is one of the less interesting stretches of British motorway. Picked up by my ticket providers (thanks again lads), we rocketed up the A19 and were in the pub in time for first orders at 9am. Onto the buses - Sports Direct carrier bags hanging out the window, of course - and we trudged at a desperately slow pace through several cultural meccas (Benwell was a particular delight) until we reached the monstrosity itself.
Herded in amid the baying hordes of barcodes, the atmosphere up in the Gods was unbelievable. For 90 minutes the Sunderland fans more than held their own against the famous "56,000" (cf. Alan Pardew), with only that last-gasp equaliser silencing them for the shortest of periods. Bendtner's goal was met by unadulterated bedlam; the Mig's penalty save possibly even more so.
I was truly proud to be a Sunderland fan that day.
Do you think the improvement made under Martin O'Neill will continue into next season, and what should be the aim?
Chris: As nice as it would be, I can't see us making the sort of improvements our neighbours have this year - it's simply not the Sunderland way.
Changes on Wearside will be positive ones, but incremental too. O'Neill has already been careful to warn against the ever rising hopes of fans, and I feel a solid 8th place finish next season will represent more than acceptable improvement.
Where we are perhaps best off focusing our hopes is the two domestic cups. This year's FA Cup run provided a tantalising glimpse of what we could achieve - unfortunately we failed to turn up when the going got properly tough. O'Neill's record in knockout competitions is excellent, and goes against the belief that trophy successes are merely a matter of luck. Wembley in a year's time? I wouldn't bet against it.