Newcastle's manager Alan Pardew has awarded the club a mark of eight out of 10 for their first season back in the Premier League.
Last year's Championship winners will end the campaign against fellow promoted side West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on Sunday with both teams secure in mid-table and knowing that victory for either could result in a top-half finish. That would represent a major achievement for the clubs, both of whom changed managers in an attempt to strengthen their grip on Premier League status.
Newcastle ensured their continued presence in the top flight with a 2-1 victory over Birmingham on 7 May and collected a creditable point at Chelsea on Sunday, despite missing key midfielders Kevin Nolan and Cheick Tioté. A final victory this weekend would cap a more than satisfactory season for Pardew and his players, but the manager believes he, predecessor Chris Hughton and their players can already be proud of their efforts.
Asked yesterday what mark he would give the club, Pardew replied: "Including Chris's time as manager here, you would have to give it an eight. In terms of the expectations and the amount of finance that was spent in the summer, the fact that we lost Hatem [Ben Arfa] to a broken leg, that we sold Andy Carroll, yes, I would give it as high as that."
Hughton departed in December after a 3-1 defeat at West Bromwich capped a five-game run without a victory. At that point, Newcastle had won five, drawn four and lost seven of their 16 league games and collected 19 points from a possible 48. Pardew's record is marginally better – 26 points from 63 – but he has lost just seven of his 21 games, winning six and drawing eight.
"If you looked at our squad, you would have to say on paper, it didn't look the strongest for the results we have had, and that's a great thing," Pardew said. "But we need to carry that over into next year and, hopefully, be stronger."
Contract talks with the likes of Jose Enrique, Joey Barton and Nolan will form a significant part of the club's work this summer, when Pardew will hope to be allowed to invest the lion's share of the £35m they banked from Carroll's January move to Liverpool. They have already been linked with a lengthy list of targets at home and abroad, including the West Ham United striker Carlton Cole, although critics of Newcastle's owner, Mike Ashley, remain unconvinced that that kind of investment will be made.
However, Pardew is relishing the prospect of stamping his mark on the club. "I can only talk from my personal fulfilment as a football manager at a great club, and it has been fantastic on that front," he said. "People have been tremendous and the players and the squad and the staff here – I think we have pulled above our weight and long may that continue."
The Sunderland manager, Steve Bruce, is hoping the club's academy can save him millions in the transfer market as he plots another spending mission. The club's disastrous conclusion to the Premier League campaign has prompted a root-and-branch review of their problems, and Bruce faces the task of explaining what has gone wrong to owner Ellis Short and coming up with solutions.
Bruce will be at least able to comfort himself with the knowledge that midfielder Jack Colback's emergence as a genuine first-team player in the wake of Jordan Henderson's rapid rise is further evidence that all the hard work below senior level is paying dividends.
"The academy does fantastically well here," Bruce said. "To have two young local lads in the team, that doesn't happen often in the Premier League these days, so they can take a big pat on the back. Ged [McNamee, academy manager] and his staff work extremely hard and we have got some very good young players too – Ryan Noble, Billy Knott, young Craig Lynch, Louis Laing, they have all got the potential to have good careers and I hope they continue."