2015-16 Sunderland AFC roundtable: VAVEL writers look back at the season gone

VAVEL's dedicated team of Black Cats writers reflect on another rollercoaster campaign, picking out the best and worst of the term.

2015-16 Sunderland AFC roundtable: VAVEL writers look back at the season gone
The season ended in absolute delight for Sunderland, with safety secured with a game to spare. (Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA)

After yet another incredible escape, the summer is here and Sunderland can relax knowing that they are set for a 10th successive season in the Premier League.

Though the Black Cats ended the campaign on a run of six unbeaten, with just one defeat in their last 11, it wasn't all smooth sailing throughout the season - it never is.

After thrills and spills, highs and lows, doubts and - finally - certainty, we here in VAVEL's Sunderland section have reflected on the season gone by, picking out key players and big moments from another rollercoaster campaign.

Player of the season

There's been plenty of stand-out performers this season, even given Sunderland's lowly finish of 17th. From top-scorer Jermain Defoe to January arrivals Jan Kirchhoff and Lamine Kone; certain players have been key to survival and the Black Cats could not have achieved safety without them.

But who's contributions have been the most important for Sunderland, important enough to put them ahead of the rest for Player of the Season?

Ameé Ruszkai: I don't think many people would pick anyone other than Defoe for this accolade. His goals have been absolutely priceless in the relegation race and, without him, it's fair to say the Black Cats would have gone down with a few games to spare. Had the likes of Kone and Kirchhoff been around since the start of the season they might have been close in the running, but in truth Defoe gets the nod by some distance.

Eve Sayers: Defoe. Without Defoe Sunderland would have undoubtedly been relegated a long time ago, maybe even before Aston Villa. Defoe's fitness for a 33-year-old is outstanding and he's showing no signs of slowing down, the striker could honestly still be scoring goals when he's 50. The passion he shows for the club is incredible also, and it's a crying shame that he's not going to the Euros.

Anthony Gair: Sunderland's player of the season for me would be German midfield general Kirchhoff. I believe that if the season had started after the Wearsiders had signed Kirchhoff, Kone and Wahbi Khazri, they would have had nothing to fear come the end of it. However, Kirchhoff has been the standout player for me, with his outstanding passing ability and his tremendous use of possession, the reported £750,000 price tag appears to be an absolute steal.

Jack McGraghan: If it was for the first half of the season it would be Yann M’Vila, and if it was for the second half it would be Kirchhoff, but there is only one man that has saved Sunderland throughout the entire season and that’s Defoe. He has games where he’ll not do anything but still pop up with a goal, and that’s exactly what Sunderland needed after lacking goals in previous seasons.

Danial Kennedy: Defoe. Defoe is arguably the sole reason while Sunderland still remain in the top flight. He has built his career on been a poacher and this season has justified that claim with 15 league goals. It is difficult to pinpoint one singular goal that stands out as each one stood out to be as important as the next and it is shame to see him not rewarded for his efforts with a call-up from Roy Hodgson.

Jess Cowie: Defoe. His goals have been invaluable this year in helping the team stay afloat once more.

Defoe gets the nod from the majority of our writers. (Photo: Sunderland AFC)
Defoe gets the nod from the majority of our writers here. (Photo: Sunderland AFC)

Most successful signing

Sam Allardyce's January window was significantly better than Dick Advocaat's summer one, with most if not all of Big Sam's signings having an immediate impact and helping the team to safety.

However, Advocaat's summer was not as terrible as some make out. Younes Kaboul has certainly proven to be a big addition, while loaned in duo M'Vila and DeAndre Yedlin have been impressive too.

Who has been the most effective of Sunderland's 14 additions in the past 12 months though?

AR: This is a difficult one as it's between two players, both of whom deserve it. One, Kone, has helped sure up a terribly leaky defence, while the other, Kirchhoff, has protected it brilliantly in a defensive midfield role. I think the latter just nicks it, especially considering how horrific his debut was against Tottenham Hotspur. To bounce back from that, which must have been rather difficult for his confidence, in such style has been quite brilliant.

ES: Kone. It took a while to eventually get him to the Stadium of Light and the struggle was well worth it. The towering centre-back has been a breath of fresh air for the Sunderland defence and, alongside Kaboul, Sunderland may have finally found a replacement for the John O'Shea/Wes Brown pairing. Despite his size, the Ivorian is still pacey and there's no getting past him.

AG: As mentioned earlier; Kirchhoff. Although Kone and Khazri have also been magnificent.

JM: It has to be Kirchhoff, who has certainly turned his fortunes around after his infamous debut at Tottenham. He has added a calmness to the midfield since he moved to the role just in front of the back four, and when you consider the fact he cost only £750,000, he might just be one of Sunderland's best signings in recent memory.

DK: Kirchhoff. There are quite a few names that could take the crown with Yedlin, M’Vila, Fabio Borini and Kone all worthy nominees, but Kirchhoff is my pick and is well deserving of the accolade. Many couldn’t be blamed for not knowing off the German before he made the move from Bayern Munich in January and many would have been horrified after his debut in the defeat to Tottenham. However he has kicked on from there and has become of the best midfielders in the league over the last few months as he strikes a perfect balance between defence and attack and it will be promising to see what he can do with a full pre-season under his belt.

JC: Again, Kirchhoff. He has made a huge impact on the team and for next to nothing of a price.

Both Kone (centre) and Kirchhoff (right) have impressed since their January arrivals. (Photo: Getty)
Both Kone (centre) and Kirchhoff (right) have impressed since their January arrivals. (Photo: Getty)

Transfer flop

The opposite of the above - both Allardyce and Advocaat did disappointing deals during the season too.

Dame N'Doye was Big Sam's only real blip, while the Dutchman had his fair share. Ola Toivonen is one of the latter's recruits that many fans have probably forgot about, while Adam Matthews failed to even make a start in the league. Sebastian Coates stakes a big claim too, having spent time on Wearside until only January before signing on loan at Sporting Lisbon - where he has since extended his deal for a further year.

There are so many contenders for the unwanted title of least successful signing, but who deserves it the most?

AR: Unfortunately for Sunderland, there are a lot of contenders for this one. Plenty of players have underwhelmed since arriving on Wearside, but none more so than Toivonen. He started his Black Cats career with a lovely assist on his debut, but that has been his only real contribution all season. His only goal was a worthless consolation in the 4-1 League Cup defeat to Manchester City, with him playing just 21 minutes of football since the turn of the year - his last appearance in February - and even that is perhaps more than he has deserved.

ES: N’Doye. What Allardyce sees in the loanee is truly baffling. He looks lost on the ball, and offers very little. There's not actually much I can write about him, because he doesn't do anything.

AG: N’Doye. He definitely looks the part of a holding target man, but failed to capitalise on his chances in the first team and found himself on the bench for the best part of Sunderland's one defeat in 11 run.

JM: It’s a straight fight between two loan signings in the shape of N’Doye and Toivonen, but for me the Swede just edges it. His only goal, coming in the League Cup against Manchester City, is the only memorable thing he has done in a Sunderland shirt, with his performances being mediocre at best when he was somehow in the first-team picture.

DK: N’Doye. As good as some of the signings have been there have also been a few stinkers, with Jeremain Lens and Matthews being prime examples, but I believe that N’Doye is the worst of a pretty bad bunch. There was promise behind him after his escapades last season with Hull City, plus with him coming with recommendation from former manager Steve Bruce, but he has done nothing since signing and it would be very surprising to see him back on Wearside next season.

JCSteve Harper. He’s simply got no relevance to the club and was a pointless signing.

N'Doye has scored just one goal since arriving on loan at the turn of the year. (Photo: Sunderland AFC)
N'Doye has scored just one goal since arriving on loan at the turn of the year. (Photo: Sunderland AFC)

Surprise package

The likes of Defoe were expected to have a big say this season, but many of the supporting cast were not.

Patrick van Aanholt unexpectedly found a way to be consistent; Vito Mannone nipped in and became the number one choice in goal and Yedlin did the same with the right-back berth.

Whose impact was the most surprising though as they helped Sunderland to survival?

AR: For me, the most surprising impact of any player this year has come from Mannone. He started the season as back-up to Costel Pantilimon, but his performances persuaded Allardyce to part with the Romanian and instead put his faith in the Italian. Mannone has resisted the competition of youngster Jordan Pickford since earning his place in the starting XI too, making some truly vital saves as Sunderland clawed their way to safety.

ES: Kirchhoff. Few people had heard of Kirchhoff and for a price tag of £750,000 many fans were displeased that the club wasn't spending much money. His debut against Spurs was horrific and you can't blame fans for thinking that it was a sign of things to come; after all, he lost Sunderland the game and cost them two goals. Remarkably after that, he turned it around completely and ran the midfield. Admittedly, he wasn't match fit and kept tiring towards the 70th minute mark, but his passing and precise tackles were a joy to behold. He'll be one of the best players for the club next season.

AG: Yedlin. The on-loan American looked poor and out of his depth in the first few games under Advocaat, but has come into his own in the last 15 games under Allardyce. As a right back, he has almost mirrored his colleague at left back van Aanholt in his ability to get forward, but isn’t shy of a challenge or two at the back where he is needed most either. He has pace to burn and has left many Sunderland fans calling for Big Sam to sign him up permanently this summer.

JMDuncan Watmore has made a bigger impact than I thought he would this season, with three goals and one assist in the Premier League after impressing in the Under 21s last season. He has even made the England under-21 squad with Pickford and that speaks volumes for how impressive he has been at times.

DK: Kone. Sunderland have been in desperate of half decent centre back for quite some time and many would have thought that Kaboul would have been an answer to that problem, however he failed to live up to expectation in the first half of the season. Allardyce not only improved the club as a manager but also in recruits and one of the key ones was defender Kone. After some fiasco at the beginning of January, Kone eventually made the move to the Stadium of Light. He was well worth the wait as he has solidified the defence massively and his class was shown as he has managed to improve the performances of Kaboul too, and the bettering performances of the defence were one of the main elements in the club's eventual survival.

JC: Kirchhoff. He has helped to sure up the defence and also contributed to the attack from midfield - something no-one expected him to do after his horror debut.

Duncan Watmore has certainly taken chances when he's got them this season. (Photo: AP)
Duncan Watmore has certainly taken chances when he's got them this season. (Photo: AP)

Crowd of the season

Behind this season's miraculous escape has been an incredible backing by a red and white army - one which has more than played its part in the clinching of survival.

The 12th man has quite easily spurred Sunderland on to victory on plenty of occasions this season, often the difference between three points and none as their team edged closer and closer to an unlikely achievement.

After 38 league games though, and 41 in all competitions, which particular crowd stood out over the course of the year?

AR: The most influential crowd this year has to have been those who turned out for the home fixture with Chelsea. The 3-2 result was massive and the performance tremendous in one of the games of the season. 2-1 down at the break, the part the fans played - particularly after the interval - was incredible as they created an atmosphere that Sunderland could only thrive in, and one that the Blues could only capitulate in. The impact of the crowd is even bigger in hindsight too, given how important the three points were on the road to safety.

ES: The support against Chelsea was incredible. The fans made the atmosphere unplayable and lifted the roof when Defoe scored the winner. Yedlin, Allardyce, Defoe and even Guus Hiddink were in awe of the Sunderland support that day. In terms of fans visiting the Stadium of Light, then it's got to be Watford. The fans packed out the away end and made noise all game long.

AG: The atmosphere at the Everton game on May 11th has to be seen as one of the best at the Stadium of Light since it was erected. The past five seasons have seen the Mackems in the same position, battling relegation until the final game of the season, so the supporters of the Lads in red and white could have been forgiven for giving up on them eventually. But they never do – and a packed house saw Sunderland safe from relegation, with the added bonus of sending dear rivals Newcastle United to the Championship, making all their perseverance worth its while.

JM: It was easily the best atmosphere not just this season, but perhaps even of all time at the Stadium of Light, and that is the home win against Chelsea. Coming from behind twice and scoring twice in quick succession sent the crowd into raptures and that day is something I certainly won’t forget in a hurry.

DK: ​The best crowd for me was that which turned out to watch the 3-0 win over Newcastle. Sunderland are renowned for their support and that was ever present this season as they stood by their side despite the struggles throughout the majority of the campaign. The Black Cats' supporters always come out in force when Newcastle come to town, and that was no different this season as the crowd matched the excellent performance of the side in Allardyce’s opening home game to shake the Stadium of Light to the rafters.

JC: Either the home game against Everton or the home game against Newcastle. It's very hard to choose, especially since 17 away games out of 19 were sold out, with the atmosphere great for majority of this season's fixtures.

The Sunderland fans cheer on their side in the 3-2 win over Chelsea. (Photo: 90min)
The Sunderland fans cheer on their side in the 3-2 win over Chelsea. (Photo: 90min)

Goal of the season

Sunderland scored 48 league goals this year, as well as seven in the League Cup and a lonely one in the FA Cup

Defoe was responsible for a huge 18 of these 56 efforts, with Borini following some way behind him with five goals. Van Aanholt, Watmore, Lens and Steven Fletcher, who left for Marseille on loan in January, all bagged four apiece, while Jack Rodwell (3), Kone, Khazri and the since-sacked Adam Johnson all managed more than one each.

After all the net-bulging and rippling though, what was the season's stand-out strike?

AR: The way the goals have come this season has been of no concern to Sunderland - it's been them coming in general that has been the problem, with them accepted graciously no matter how scrappy and ugly. However, there have been some special ones nonetheless, and Khazri's in the 3-2 win over Chelsea was the most special. The technique to hit the ball first time, especially when it was at a rather difficult height, was spectacular, while the power generated from such a sweet connection was magnificent too. A truly stunning strike - and in a massive game too.

ES: Khazri has been quality since arriving on Wearside and although it doesn't always fall for him, his work ethic is truly admirable. His goal against Chelsea, an amazing volley to get Sunderland back in the game, was amazing and assuredly the club's best goal this season.

AG: The media have dumbed it down by stating it took a deflection and came off his shin, but Khazri's 25 yard thunderbolt volley against champions Chelsea was one of the most impressive I’ve seen personally at Sunderland.

JM: This can only be Khazri’s volley against Chelsea, as although it took a small deflection I think that simply helped it on its way to the back of the net. I’d be surprised if I see a volley struck any sweeter in the near future, even more so if it were in such an important game as this one was.

DK: There were not many goals for Sunderland to celebrate this season, with just 48 to their tally, but Khazri’s effort towards the end of the campaign was one that they will be proud of. Sunderland where 1-0 down at the time to Hiddink’s side thanks to Diego Costa’s strike, but Khazri lifted the crowd and the side just before the break as he showed great technique to hit the ball first-time on the volley, giving Thibaut Courtois no chance as he ignited one of the sides best performances of the season.

JC: Again, it has to be Khazri's strike against Chelsea. As well as the quality, the significance was massive too, making it even better.

Khazri celebrates his wonder-strike, which was goal of the season for all of our writers. (Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images Europe)
Khazri celebrates his wonder-strike, which was goal of the season for all of our writers. (Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images Europe)

Performance of the season

Continuing with the good before we move onto another bad, we are brought to the category of best team performance. 

There weren't many outstanding displays by Sunderland these year - if any - which made the impressive ones all that more impressive for the unsuspecting viewer.

Most of the time the result didn't match the performance, but this side have shown that they have the quality to play well this season and they will be looking to build on that next year.

AR: A game that may be lost in the minds of fans after the Chelsea result; I think that Sunderland's best performance this season came at home to Manchester United. The Black Cats completely played the Red Devils off the park to beat them for the first time at the Stadium of Light, and had they been able to boast more cutting edge in the final third it could have been a rout. The commitment of the team and the energy throughout was marvellous, with the Wearsiders making United look like anything but 20-time English champions.

ES: Again, the Chelsea game. The resilience and effort shown by the Lads that day will stay with Sunderland supporters for a long time. To come from behind, twice, when the team were fighting for their Premier League lives was amazing. Every single ball was chased down, and there was no way Chelsea were getting the three points.

AG: This is a tough one but for me the performance of the season - subjectively chosen through importance, style and commitment - was the 3-2 victory over last season's champions, Chelsea. In a game which had more twists and turns than an episode of ‘24’, Sunderland had to win this to maintain the pressure on Newcastle and Norwich City. Costa put a spanner in the works early on, but Sunderland showed heart, commitment and bucket-loads of character however, and found themselves back in the game thanks to Khazri's volley from out of nowhere. The fans were overjoyed and flabbergasted from the performance the players were putting in, but Chelsea stole a goal right on the stroke of half time, from Nemanja Matic. The Sunderland who appeared earlier in the season would have folded, but not this side. The second half kicked off, and the Black Cats never looked back – a few decent saves from Mannone saw off Chelsea's sparse attacks, and goals from Borini and Defoe saw Sunderland win this one and climb above Newcastle - moving out of the relegation zone.

JM: For me the best team performance would be the 3-0 win at Norwich. It was a game Sunderland desperately needed to win and the players made sure the Canaries were allowed no clear opportunities, and when they were presented with a chance up the other end they made it count.

DK: On their day, Sunderland can compete with the best of them and have produced a handful of fantastic performances this campaign, but I believe that the best was the comeback against former champions Chelsea. Things looked bleak when Matic regained Chelsea’s lead just before the break, but Allardyce’s side showed the determination needed to survive and were rewarded with goals from Borini and Defoe, who sealed a historic comeback which would prove vital in their eventual survival.

JC: It has to be Chelsea. To come from behind twice against the former champions when scrapping at the wrong end of the table needed everything from every player, and that's what the fans got.

Sunderland produced one of their best performances to beat Chelsea. (Photo: Getty)
Sunderland produced one of their best performances to beat Chelsea. (Photo: Getty)

The lowest of the lows

And we arrive at our second negative of this piece; the lowest point of the season. No matter how used to watching a team struggle one might be, there is always a point in the season when relegation fears are realised and the pessimism sets in - even if just for a short period of time.

Sunderland fans will be more than familiar with the feeling, and there are several moments this season that they could pick out as one in which they felt it.

Just what was Sunderland's rock bottom in 2015-16 then?

AR: On the pitch, there was no real stand-out low point this season for the Black Cats, though the Adam Johnson case produced some dark days off it. However, following the goalless draw with West Bromwich Albion, frustration reached an all-time high after a run of low fortune and that was a point where relegation seemed inevitable. An inspired display by Ben Foster denied them a well deserved win, with the goalless draw following a disappointing 1-1 result against bitter rivals Newcastle. It was the fourth successive draw for the Black Cats, with two games before the Tyne-Wear derby seeing them concede last minute equalisers, and was certainly a point where it looked like everything was against the side as they battled to stay up. 

ES: The Adam Johnson case. Johnson was adored on Wearside, he had it all and was a huge player for Allardyce. His actions were truly condemnable and dragged Sunderland's name through the mud. The day of his conviction was one of the club's darkest.

AG: Nothing to do with Sunderland really, but when Newcastle started to grind out results with reputable manager Rafa Benitez in charge, I thought, personally, that they weren’t going to stay up. Fortunately for the Black Cats, I was wrong!

JM: The first two defeats of the season against Leicester City and Norwich were incredibly deflating, as at the time both were seen as teams that would be around Sunderland come the end of the season, so to lose so easily to both was incredibly disappointing. Any of my optimism for the season ahead was well and truly gone by the end of the Norwich game, as it sunk in that the team still had not learned from past mistakes.

DK: The season has been filled with low moments, with the first nine matches of the season failing to motivate fans and players alike. However I believe that the last gasp draw with Southampton was the lowest point of the campaign as it showed that the side did have enough quality but not the concentration to hold out for wins in the dying embers of a match, which was worrying to say the least.

JC: The end of December was the low point for me, having lost five out of five fixtures that month. Sunderland’s longest run of defeat this season hardly filled the fans with confidence that they were going to stay up.

Sunderland conceded some devastating goals this season, none more crushing than Virgil van Dijk's last minute equaliser against Southampton. (Photo: Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
Sunderland conceded some devastating goals this season, few more crushing than Virgil van Dijk's last minute equaliser at Southampton. (Photo: Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

Turning point in the strive for safety

Contrasting massively with the above, we come to our final category of this piece - the moment which changed Sunderland's course to one destined for safety.

There are many games in contention that occurred throughout the season, particularly in that final run of six unbeaten and one defeat in 11.

However, there were signs earlier in the campaign that the fight was there to keep the team up that should not be overlooked either, as our writers pick out their game-changing results to round us off.

AR: The Chelsea result was the turning point for some, but for me it was the 3-0 win over Norwich. Sparking Sunderland's unbeaten end to the season, it was important for the Black Cats to respond to defeat the week before against Leicester, especially away at a relegation rival, and they essentially kicked Norwich out of contention for survival with an emphatic victory in this six-pointer. A difficult start to the game was endured before a rout of a result, with the way the team rose to the occasion showing that they would be capable of avoiding the drop.

ES: It seems like Chelsea is the answer for everything, but of course the Chelsea result was pivotal in staying up. If not, it would have gone to the last day. No-one gave Sunderland a chance; Chelsea launched a great comeback against Spurs just days before the game and Sunderland looked certain to go down. The win lifted them out of the relegation zone though and above fierce rivals Newcastle.

AG: Madly enough, Allardyce’s first home game - the 3-0 victory over Newcastle in October. There are other results that have kept Sunderland up, but if they hadn’t won that one, they would be relegated and Newcastle would be staying up at their expense. Who’d have thought a game so early in the season would have been so pivotal?

JM: Again I’ll have to go with the 3-0 win at Norwich, as it gave the team a bit of belief that they could stay up as well as deflating Norwich and effectively relegating them, as they never recovered from the loss. If Sunderland hadn’t won that game, I doubt they would have gone on to get some of the results they did in later games.

DK: There are some games towards the end of the season that can be earmarked as the pivotal moment that secured Sunderland's top-flight status, with the wins over Chelsea and Everton been up there, but I believe that the win over Norwich was even more important. This basement battle couldn’t have more significance and it was Sunderland who managed to hold their nerve with goals from Borini, Defoe and Watmore giving the side one big push towards safety.

JC: The last six games were key in staying up, and so the 3-0 win over Norwich has to be the pivotal result as it sparked the unbeaten end to another season of safety.

Few feelings beat the feeling of derby day delight. (Photo: Mark Runnacles/Getty)
Few feelings beat the feeling of derby day delight. (Photo: Mark Runnacles/Getty)