What Matters Most Is How You Finish

Sunderland look like a club on the up after the 'Great Escape' despite losing over half of their games. It's how you finish that matters most, Daniel Storey believes...

Last Updated: 20/05/14 at 13:25 Post Comment

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The league table has always been a fairly good indicator of how to rank football clubs at the end of the season. Unless you are a team within the Dutch Eerste Divisie, where you could lose your last 27 games and still be promoted, the final standings allow objective judgments of performance.

Despite the force-fed bilious n**rative that Liverpool would be deserving league champions, Manchester City merited their victory simply because they collected more points that Liverpool. That's just how it works, and the Daily Telegraph's claim that 'Steven Gerrard's cruel slip proves that romance is dead' was rightly dismissed as entirely unfounded. Similarly, Cardiff, Norwich and Fulham deserved to be relegated because they collected fewer points than the rest.

However, whilst the table may never lie when prizes (or TV revenue) are handed out, the same cannot be said of the perception of performance in the minds of supporters, which shifts markedly from such an order.

Sunderland finished four places and 11 points behind rivals Newcastle, but their league season is now tinged with positivity after taking seven points from three games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United in April and May effecting their 'Great Escape'. "Miracles do happen," was Gus Poyet's summation of Sunderland's run of form to end an season in which they took exactly one point per game.

Meanwhile, the air around St James' Park is thick with negativity, despite Newcastle taking more points in the top flight than in seven of the last eight years. The same principle applies to West Ham, who also finished above Sunderland but lost five of their last six matches. Hostility rising, confidence getting low.

Hull City have enjoyed a hugely impressive season, but should Steve Bruce's side start next season slowly, it won't be long until it is pointed out that Hull have won just five league games since December 1st, the summer break helpfully transforming that into '20 points in eight months'. Steve Clarke would presumably sympathise with Bruce, the Scot sacked by West Brom in December after finishing in eighth in 2012/13. Sporting director Richard Garlick cited results in the "calendar year" as the reason for Clarke's sacking, further evidence that the latter half of the season had been given more importance than the first.

Even at the top, this mindset continues. Liverpool's late form was indeed magnificent but there is still a tangible sense of disappointment that an incredibly unlikely title bid faltered late on. Had Liverpool instead dropped points against Chelsea and Crystal Palace before ending on an 11-game winning run and missing out on the title by two points, unmuted celebration would have replaced regret at just how close Liverpool had finished.

The golden rule, it appears, is that it is how you end the season that matters most, not how you start. Sunderland may have spent £27.5million in the last 12 months - more than Newcastle and West Ham combined - but the fact that they managed to complete the 'Great Escape' makes more of a mark than the paltry six wins between August and mid-April.

The same mentality exists within the context of individual matches. 'Hull City staged a remarkable fightback from two goals down,' read the BBC Sport headline after Hull drew 2-2 with Fulham in April. "We showed great resilience to get something out of it," Bruce claimed after the match, but no-one seemingly thought to ask the manager why they had fallen two goals behind a side that had held such a lead only once at home since April 2013.

"We've shown yet again great character to come back. It was a good point." Those were the words not of Gus Poyet after Sunderland's point at the Etihad, but of Brendan Rodgers after Liverpool had drawn 2-2 at Anfield against Aston Villa. The result was headlined by the BBC as 'Liverpool recovered from two goals down to draw with Aston Villa and maintain their unbeaten start to 2014' - surely the obvious issue was one of defensive weakness?

Perhaps it is indicative of modern short-termism instigated by information overload, our minds so full of meaningless nonsense that we can only remember the latest thing that has happened. Whilst that may make it understandable, it doesn't make it right.

Why should Sunderland's players be showered with praise for their determination when the situation demanded it, rather than questioned for their rotten form over the previous six months? And why should Liverpool be mocked for 'bottling' their title bid when many considered a top-four finish an unlikely pre-season ambition? Whatever the reason, it increasingly feels that it isn't just where, but also how you finish that matters most.

Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter.

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