BUOYED by a recent upturn in form, Sunderland have set their sights on the top-half finish they ought to have won last season.
The Black Cats have only finished in England’s top ten three times since 1955.
Yet five wins in their least eight Premier League games have taken them within a point of the top half.
It is a very impressive transformation for a team which started December looking nervously over its shoulder.
Now, boosted by new signings and expectations of more, midfielder Craig Gardner says the Wearsiders are intent on righting the failings of the last campaign.
He said: “We have Lee Cattermole and Browny (Wes Brown) to come back from injury and they are key players to our team.
“The gaffer might bring someone else in, I’m not sure, but we have a good squad and hopefully we can finish in the top ten now.
“We were in a dangerous position a few weeks ago but we have pulled away from the bottom three and now we have to think about pushing on and sealing the top-ten finish we didn’t get last season.”
Sunderland had a similar mid-season revival in 2011-12, with players talking optimistically about European qualification until form fell away and they finished 13th.
When injury-plagued Brown will return from persistent knee trouble is unclear.
Manager Martin O’Neill will treat any appearances this season as a bonus. Captain Cattermole, though, could be back for Sunderland’s next game, at home to Swansea City on Tuesday.
Another source of confidence is the resilience shown at Wigan Athletic.
They trailed courtesy of David Vaughan’s fifth-minute own goal but, thanks to a comeback started by Gardner’s penalty – his first for the club – resisted heavy second-half pressure to win 3-2.
Gardner added: “There are not many teams who have come to Wigan, beat them and played them off the park.
“In the second half they had a lot of possession but we still claimed the result. Results are key at this stage.
“There were 5,000 fans who came down to support us in those conditions and we’d like to give them a shout out, from the players, staff and everyone, for making the journey.
“We heard them singing and cheering and that really pushed us on.”
On his penalty-taking technique, Gardner explained: “I’m not a player that tries to tap it, I just pick a side and hammer it and I think that’s how they should be taken.
“I’ve scored five goals this season and that’s largely from right-back. Hopefully I can score a few more.”
The Black Cats have signed Alfred N’Diaye and Kader Mangane this month and hope to land strikers Danny Graham and Mauro Zárate.
N’Diaye impressed with his power and energy at Wigan.
Gardner said: “It’s something we’ve been missing.
“Alfie is such a nice lad but he’s a hard player. People think he just gets about the pitch and smashes people, but his cross for the second goal was top-notch.
“If that’s his (full) debut, I’d like to think what he will be like in 10, 15 games.
“Once he has some confidence and gets used to the pace of the game he will be a brilliant signing. If we can play that like every week then happy days.”
Some Italian sources are claiming Sunderland are in talks to take Zárate on loan from Lazio, with a view to a permanent £5.9m move.
However, agent Luis Ruzzi – whose comments have been erratic – hinted Genoa were in the box seat.
Ruzzi was quoted as saying his client was “at war” with Lazio, but is now more conciliatory.
He said: “Mauro has another year-and-a-half contract with Lazio and we want to stay, unless we find a good solution.
“Rumours about Genoa, Besiktas and Sunderland? There have been contacts with some clubs and it is true I met the Genoa president Enrico Preziosi, but it is up to the clubs.”