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Sunderland stage another relegation escape in Premier League

With the season over, it's time to assess Sunderland's 2015-16. Here's a look at the club's campaign under Sam Allardyce.

Season in a sentence

Sunderland again seemed a lost cause but if recovery under Allardyce was slow and agonising, safety was eventually achieved with time to spare and hope that brighter times may at last lie ahead.

Highlight

Four games stand out as contenders and Sunderland scored three in each of them.

Many supporters would pick the 3-0 home defeat of Newcastle United, also the first win of the season, achieved -- in keeping with recent managerial history -- in Allardyce's second game in charge. It was a sixth successive league victory over the local rivals and raised the season's first serious hope of revival after the disastrous start under Dick Advocaat.

Others would choose the win by the same margin against Everton on May 11, since this sealed survival in the penultimate game. Or they would cite the excellent 3-0 result at Norwich City on Apr. 16 because of what it did to the survival prospects and morale of both struggling clubs.

Yet it was the outstanding comeback, four days before the Everton visit, to beat Chelsea 3-2 after twice trailing, that ultimately defined the best of a bad season, calming gnawing fears that the latest battle against relegation might still end in tears.

The manner of that triumph, with goals of the highest quality from Wahbi Khazri, Fabio Borini and Jermain Defoe and an all-round display of commitment that cancelled out Chelsea's technical superiority, was also important. The response of the home capacity crowd, 5,000 higher than Chelsea can accommodate at Stamford Bridge, seemed to broadcast to the world that Sunderland's constant 12th man, their passionate and irrationally loyal support, truly believed that confirmation of their top-flight status a few days later would be a formality.

Low point

If Leicester City's fabulous season later put into context Sunderland's opening game defeat at the King Power Stadium, a 4-2 result that felt even heavier, the second game -- losing 3-1 at home to newly promoted Norwich -- was the real body blow.

Again, the two-goal margin flattered Sunderland, who took 87 minutes to score a consolation goal against a side that even then looked likely to struggle as the season progressed. It brought Sunderland crashing to earth after all the promise of a bright future after Advocaat's willingness to return for another season, having guided the club to safety in 2014-15.

Sunderland did not begin to recover from that abysmal start until after Advocaat resigned in early October; the manager also saying how unhappy he was with the squad at his disposal. By then, Sunderland, second-bottom and winless with just three points form eight games, looked a lost cause. They spent so long in the bottom three that it seemed simply a matter of waiting to see who would join them and Aston Villa in the Championship next season.

Performances were so bad, confidence so low that it took Allardyce several weeks before the green shoots of recovery were evident. No one watching that second game of the season could have guessed that a new manager would make such an impact.

Star man

An impressive turnaround in results in 2016, yielding six wins and eight draws from 18 games, must be credited in large measure to Allardyce's insistence that he alone should manage without the aid of a director of football. Allardyce astutely used the transfer window to make a huge improvement to the team's organisation and defensive strength.

Revival also brought individual success stories, in particular the solid central defence pairing of Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone and the unrecognisably better play of full-backs Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin. All but Kone were players he inherited.

But if there can be only one star, it has to be Defoe. Despite advancing years, he revealed himself to be as sharp as when he was playing for England, a tribute to his healthy lifestyle and a dogged determination to stay at the top as long as his body allows.

Defoe's tally of Premier League goals in a troubled side would not disgrace a striker from a top-six club enjoying top-six service. The goals were predominantly the result of Defoe's tireless running and eye for opportunity. What is more, he probably has at least a season in the top flight left in him.

What's next?

Sunderland must finally accomplish the aim of climbing to the next level, namely a place so far above the bottom four or five that relegation is not seen as a serious possibility at any stage of next season.

Allardyce's comments show him to be up for the fight. He has talked of strengthening the squad and that must be done by a smart combination of keeping the best of his current lot, turning M'Vila and the vastly improved U.S. full-back Yedlin's loans into permanent signings and adding quality in all areas. Four acquisitions would be enough -- cover at full-back and in central defence plus a creative midfielder and one goal-hungry attacker.

That also implies a fair amount of outward movement from the club. Plenty of players on the fringes of first-team action, or those who were sent out on loan, should be encouraged to leave. This may well spell an end to the Sunderland careers of men like Jeremain Lens, Wes Brown, Billy Jones and a host of players loaned elsewhere.

And forget Defoe's forthcoming 34th birthday in October. Goals, not age, are the currency of a striker of his calibre and he should be convinced to commit himself to Sunderland for at least one more season.

If Allardyce can keep Kone, Kaboul, Jan Kirchhoff, Khazri, Borini and Defoe, and sign M'Vila and Yedlin on permanent deals, the future could be bright. The pattern of results since the January transfer window opened reflects well on Allardyce. Now he must show himself equipped for the next step.