Once again, it’s that time of the year when we look back at the past nine months and wonder how they have flown by so fast.
It’s a time of recollection, a time of regret but perhaps most importantly, it’s a time of redevelopment. A chance for any team to wipe the slate clean and improve over the summer break so that they might improve next season.
The 2011-12 campaign was a roller-coaster ride for Sunderland in particular.
The Black Cats were involved in a relegation battle. They made a serious march for a European Spot. But eventually, the club simmered away to achieve a finish in the bottom half of the table.
There is plenty to pick about from the remains of the recently-passed season, and eleven players in particular will have put the work in over the 38 games and emerged in this Sunderland 2011-12 Team of the Season.
Conditions: To make it into this Star XI, any player named must have played in at least twenty matches for the first team this season. Regardless of overall talent, these choices pertain to the 2011-12 season and that season alone.
Mignolet: Safe pair of hands
With Craig Gordon out, injured for practically the entire season, this campaign was Simon Mignolet’s first real crack of the whip at starting between the posts for any considerable spell at Sunderland.
And what a spell it was.
The Belgian international started in 28 Premier League matches, missing out over the Christmas period only due to a nose injury.
Before this term, Craig Gordon had pinned his name on the No. 1 jersey, only surrendering the spot when suffering from injuries.
The Scot suffered an ACL injury in April of last year that eventually meant he would not feature for the first team for over a year.
Cue Mignolet’s rise.
Based on his performances this term, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Simon Mignolet is still just 23 years-old.
The stopper has showed maturity beyond his years and did enough in front of his net to finish with 12 clean sheets in club competition this season.
His youth, coupled with the remarkable skill he has displayed, means that Craig Gordon is now likely to leave the Stadium of Light, with Martin O’Neill opting to groom Keiren Westwood as his second-choice goalkeeper.
Now starring as the first choice Belgium international 'keeper, Mignolet’s reaction-saving is amongst the best in the Premier League and if he can improve other aspects of his game, there’s no reason to believe the youngster can’t become a staple in the Black Cats' setup for another decade or more.
Gardner(middle): Heading for the exit?
In this list, Craig Gardner has the unusual honour of being the only player amongst the Sunderland 2011-12 Team of the Season to be named at a position that isn’t his natural one.
Preferably a central midfielder, Gardner has shown himself to be a versatile and open-minded team player that is willing to play out of position for the good of his club; an approach that many others in the English top flight could learn from.
It’s looking likely that the 25 year-old may move away from Sunderland this summer as Gardner has been anything but quiet about his home-sickness, but Mackem fans can be pleased with the player’s contribution.
Wes Brown and John O’Shea would surely have been started ahead of Gardner had they been fit but the ex-Manchester United veterans have struggled to maintain their physical health this season and stay injury-free.
Playing from the back, Gardner showed himself to be a valuable defender, capable of making forward runs and helping out in attack on plenty of occasions.
Should he move back to the West Midlands as is being protracted, Gardner’s presence as a utility player will be sorely missed.
O'Shea: Cleared for Euro 2012
Arriving last summer along with an influx of other new faces, John O’Shea’s beginning at Sunderland was delayed by a preseason injury that meant he would have to wait until late August to make his competitive debut for the club.
The Republic of Ireland international was signed from Manchester United along with teammate Wes Brown in order to bring a calm and experienced approach to an otherwise-flustered backline.
He did just that.
Despite being 31 years-old, O’Shea went on to make 34 starts for Sunderland in his debut season.
When he’s on the pitch, O’Shea exudes an almost cooling aura, allowing those around him to express themselves more freely because they know that they have a player at the back capable of clearing up any mess that may occur.
Admittedly, the defender may have taken a step down in standard when he moved from Old Trafford to the Stadium of Light last summer, but O’Shea still boasts the experience of a seasoned professional and it tells.
Contracted to the club until 2015, O’Shea can lead from the back at Sunderland for years to come, providing he keeps fit.
Turner: An obstacle for any striker
It seems almost assured that John O’Shea was going to occupy one of the central defensive roles at Sunderland this year as that’s what he was brought to the club to do; however, the role of who would play alongside him was very much up for grabs.
That being said, as the season has progressed, Michael Turner has put his own stamp on the position and is a contributing factor to Sunderland having the fourth best home defence in the Premier League this season.
The 28 year-old started the season with injury and didn’t make his season debut until October but quickly integrated into the starting XI as soon as he did return to fitness.
When both fit, Turner and O’Shea form a very effective partnership but the trouble is just that: keeping them both healthy.
Titus Bramble is currently contesting with off-the-pitch troubles (we won’t go there) while Wes Brown has been as blighted with injury as any.
Sotirios Kyrgiakos was brought in on loan in January while Matthew Kilgallon also filled in at centre-back when necessary but neither looked as assured as Turner.
The ex-Hull City talisman has just a year remaining on his deal with Sunderland and his age means that he isn’t assured of getting a new long-term contract with the club.
Regardless, Turner has proven to a great stopper of goals this season—particularly due to his aerial presence—and has emerged as one of the leaders amongst the team.
Richardson: A favourite on Wearside
Defence has proven to be a problematic area of the pitch for Sunderland this season but more specifically at full-back.
Injuries picked up by Wes Brown and John O’Shea left Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley as the only natural full-backs in the team at times.
Richardson has featured at just about every position for Sunderland but it’s no secret that his preferred place is out on the left.
The ex-Manchester United prospect featured mostly as a left-sided midfielder in the early stages of the 2011-12 campaign but the emergence of James McClean meant that Richardson became more frequently utilized as a wing-back.
With his naturally attacking frame of mind, Richardson has proven to be a very capable support player in recent years and this term was no different.
The 27 year-old acts as a fifth midfielder whether or not that’s where he was designated at the first whistle.
Wayne Bridge was signed on a six-month loan deal in January but a combination of Richardson and Phil Bardsley kept the former Chelsea star out for the most part.
Although his defensive side lets him down at times, Richardson just about beats Bardsley to the role of left-back—not that the Sunderland faithful don’t appreciate the rockets that the Scot is on hand to produce from time to time.
That being said, Richardson’s set-piece play is another reason why he makes it into this starting XI and, in short, that left foot of his is still just too good to leave out.
Cattermole: Always in the think of things
Aggressive. Violent. Passionate. Spin it how you may but anyone who has watched the midfielder in action knows that Lee Cattermole loves a good, meaty tackle.
That’s not to say that the ex-Wigan starlet brings his game to the same unnecessary heights that Joey Barton does, but physicality is just a massive part of Cattermole’s game.
The 24 year-old has proven to be a key part of the Sunderland midfield this campaign, and will always commit in every match to the fullest.
Cattermole would be the first person to say that he isn’t the most technically gifted but what the anchorman lacks in skill, he makes up for with mental strength.
On numerous occasions this campaign, the full-time whistle will sound and none will show their fatigue more than Lee Cattermole, not because of a lack of fitness, but because of the work put out on the field of play.
Every team needs a tough guy and Cattermole, club captain, bears that flag for Sunderland with pride.
In his 27 starts for the club this season, the midfielder has earned 13 yellow cards and one red card.
While he might fall onto the more controversial side of the team, Lee Cattermole is a fundamental cog in this Sunderland machine.
Colback: On the ball
Following on from their fiery captain, Sunderland boasts another fiery midfielder, just for a different reason.
The 2011-12 season was Jack Colback’s big break amongst the English elite as the ginger playmaker saw a massive boost in game time, and for good reason.
Colback made an impressive 33 starts for the Black Cats this campaign—an incredible feat considering that he started in just six games last year.
Following the summer exit of Jordan Henderson, there was always going to be a gap in midfield and it says a lot about the Sunderland Academy setup that such a valued home-grown player can be immediately replaced by another.
A Sunderland boy through and through, Colback has proven willing to sacrifice for the cause and has played across the midfield as well as featured at left-back this season.
Considering the amount of playing time the youngster has seen, it’s even more impressive that Colback has a pass completion rate of 83.5 percent this season, second only to higher rates from David Vaughan and Ji Dong-Won, both of whom have hardly featured this season.
It was Steve Bruce that originally put faith in Colback, handing him the responsibility of first-team football, and fortunately Martin O’Neill has seen the same potential and allowed the central midfielder to progress.
At just 22 years-old, one would like to think that Colback can hold down his place and star for the north-east club for some years to come, lest clubs come calling like they did for the departed Jordan Henderson.
Larsson: Slotting home against City
With three Man of the Match performances to his name in the past nine-and-a-half months, Sebastian Larsson has made perhaps the biggest contribution to Sunderland’s 2011-12 season with the most minimal effort.
Moving to the Stadium of Light on a free transfer last summer, the Number 7 proved to be a highly valuable asset to the north-east club, showcasing his particular talents from set pieces.
The Swedish international has made 39 starts for the club this season, scoring eight goals and registering five assists in the process.
With a lack of striking talent in their ranks, it was paramount to success that any balls that did find their way into the area be of a very high quality, putting the ball on a platter for whoever was furthest forward.
Larsson provided that quality on a very frequent basis.
In this season alone, a brace against Manchester City, a superbly executed volley against Liverpool as well as sumptuous free-kicks against the likes of Arsenal, Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers are all particular highlights.
Physically, the 26 year-old isn’t anything to write home about but with a right peg that goalkeepers find supremely difficult to withstand, Larsson easily bags a place on this Sunderland 2011-12 Team of the Season.
McClean: Pacier than the rest
If there were a prize for Discovery of the Season, James McClean would have emerged on the gilded end of voting along with his Young Player of the Season award.
The Republic of Ireland international could have gone all the way and came away with the Player of the Season award were it not for the consistently inspiring form of Stephane Sessegnon.
McClean came to Wearside last summer along with the raft of players that joined the club.
It was Steve Bruce that signed the youngster but it wasn’t until after Bruce was fired and Martin O’Neill took over at Sunderland that McClean was handed his first taste of first team action.
1-0 down at home to Blackburn with 15 minutes left in his first game at the helm of Sunderland, Martin O’Neill decided to throw McClean into the fray and so began the miraculous story of the young lad from Derry.
McClean came to his new surroundings for a fee of just £350,000, making his swift integration into life in the Premier League all the more outstanding.
Since debuting in December, the 23 year-old has gone on to score five goals and notch three assists in twenty Premier League starts, earning himself his first cap for the Republic of Ireland as he went.
The Premier League elite are already reported to be sniffing around the signature of Sunderland’s surprise package but this is one very significant asset that the Black Cats will be desperate to hang on to for years to come.
Sessegnon: Sunderland Player of the Season
It’s probably safe to say that Stephane Sessegnon is now one of, if not the most well-known footballer ever to come out of Benin.
After an exhilarating 2011-12 campaign that saw him pick up the Sunderland Player of the Season award, Sessegnon is now being hunted by the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham and former club Paris Saint-Germain—and all for good reason.
When the 27 year-old arrived on Wearside last summer, little was known about the pint-sized attacker from Paris other than what could be seen in his YouTube compilations.
Following Asamoah Gyan’s desperately greedy departure to the United Arab Emirates, Sunderland seemed devoid of attacking options with the on-loan Nicklas Bendtner as their most seasoned striker.
In steps Sessegnon.
Steve Bruce had no choice but to push a player out of their comfort zone and further up the field but what started out as unfamiliar surroundings for the Beninese international, has now become new stomping grounds.
Sessegnon was showing his skills from the start of the season but it wasn’t until the rise that began under Martin O’Neill that Sunderland fans could see how well spent their £6m truly was.
"Sess" went on to net on eight occasions and made eleven assists during the season.
The 5ft 7” attacker combines mazy dribbling skills with his low centre of gravity, enabling him to run directly at defenders, making their lives miserable when on the top of his game.
The club face a challenge in holding onto this gem over the next three months but when composing a list such as this, Sessegnon is the first name jotted down.
Bendtner: Didn't quite reach new heights at the Stadium of Light
A miserable spell at Arsenal led Nicklas Bendtner to seek opportunities elsewhere and on the final day of the 2011 summer transfer window, the Dane put pen to paper a season-long loan deal at Sunderland.
Unfortunately for club ad player alike, Asamoah Gyan’s exit in September made things a hell of a lot harder for all parties involved.
It meant that Sunderland were short of their biggest threat in front of goal and it also meant that Bendtner had lost his strike partner; a near necessity if he is to operate at anywhere near his full potential.
Any Sunderland fan will tell you that they appreciate the work Bendtner put in during his time in the north east but given the choice between making his loan deal a permanent one or moving for another striker, they would probably opt for the latter.
Given the circumstances, eight goals and five assists for the 24 year-old isn’t terrible going, it just isn’t particularly great either.
Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won were both signed as future prospects more than immediate starters and so couldn’t be named due to their lack of involvement while Fraizer Campbell just simply didn’t play enough since returning from a horrific ACL injury.
More out of obligation than anything else, Nicklas Bendtner plays as a lone striker in this Sunderland 2011-12 Team of the Season.
All statistics come courtesy of whoscored.com and statto.com