James McClean: A Big Winner With A Big Future
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Monday's Sunderland Supporters Association awards evening could well have been one set against the backdrop of another relegation battle for the Black Cats. As 2011 ticked into December, the Wearsiders found themselves just two points above the bottom three, waving goodbye to a dejected Steve Bruce.
It is testament to incoming manager Martin O'Neill then, and the club as a whole, that this year's awards instead came amidst mid-table mediocrity. Safe from relegation but no longer able to propel themselves into a European spot, O'Neill's men welcomed ardent fans to the Stadium of Light to celebrate a saved season.
The winners of the night's two big prizes were, naturally, huge contributors to that rescue mission.
Top of the bill was diminutive maestro Stephane Sessegnon. The Benin international, to the surprise of none of the 400 in attendance, scooped the supporters' Player of the Year award.
Derby day misadventures aside, it has been a breakout season for the tricky frontman. Looking somewhat lost as Bruce tried to pigeonhole him into a system that had long ceased working for the side, the arrival of a new manager revitalised last January's £6 million signing from Paris St-Germain.
Despite rumours of homesickness circulating, Sessegnon has remained the central channel through which this Sunderland side most often travels. Much better suited to O'Neill's preference for counter-attacking with pace, the man dubbed playfully by fans as a mix of "Pele and Messi" has often been the focal point of breaks out of defence, setting many an attacking move in motion.
Sessegnon's own presence in front of goal this season must not be undermined either. With eight goals to his name he finds himself as joint top scorer alongside Nicklas Bendtner and Sebastian Larsson, while his nine assists put him at seventh overall in the Premier League.
His victory is a marked departure from last year's winner, Phil Bardsley. Bardsley, though still admired and respected in the stands, represents an altogether more workmanlike player than his successor. On the contrary, Sessegnon is the type of player Sunderland have long dreamed of attracting to the club, and the type they surely need if they are to continue to improve their league position year on year.
Because of his undoubted talent, many fear this season may be Sessegnon's last on Wearside - Monday's award could well be a parting gift. Yet on Tuesday, in an interview with the Sunderland Echo, he stated: "I don't feel that that my work here is finished. I'm playing for a team who like to play football, with great fans."
Not quite the definitive promise that fans hoped for, but the chances of Sunderland retaining their star man have nevertheless been boosted.
One man who will certainly be going nowhere this summer is James McClean, who scooped the supporters' Young Player of the Year award.
Fighting off stiff competition from Jack Colback for the accolade - who has shone particularly bright in recent weeks - McClean must go down as the Premier League's find of the season. Plucked from Irish league obscurity in pre-season, he found himself limited to reserve team football under the cagey Bruce.
But, just as with so many in the squad, O'Neill's arrival represented a new dawn for the direct winger. The rise that has followed has been somewhat meteoric - from being an unheard of nobody, McClean now regularly finds himself the subject of the attention of not just one, but two opposing players.
Weighing in with six goals himself, and a boatload of menacing crosses, his £350,000 fee conjured up memories of a similar cheap find by the name of Kevin Phillips. If McClean can go on to have even half the impact the man known as "Super Kev" did, then he can surely expect to be a regular attendee at club awards dinners for many years to come.
Back to the present though and, despite a petering out of sorts, the club once again finds itself on firm footing. Two games of the season remain, with a trip to Fulham and Craven Cottage first up this coming Sunday. After that the Black Cats welcome a Manchester United side who could well be fighting down to the wire in search of yet another league title - how welcome it is that Sunderland don't find themselves fighting a last day relegation battle, especially considering the way their season seemed to be heading.
Monday evening was one of celebration, an opportunity for players and fans alike to mingle, and to thank one another for their respective efforts this year. Where recently such events may as well have been labelled the chance to crown the club's "least worst" player, the Black Cats continued consolidation is something that must not be sniffed at.
An interesting summer awaits those on Wearside. Let us hope next year's awards evening is the most celebrated yet.