Sunderland’s Adam Johnson – We’re going for Champions League!

Adam Johnson in action against Hartlepool United. Picture by Frank Reid
Adam Johnson in action against Hartlepool United. Picture by Frank Reid

OXYGEN levels have only just returned to normal on Wearside after the breathless finale to last season.

But can Sunderland take the feel-good factor from Premier League survival into the new campaign?

Ahead of this weekend’s curtain-raiser at West Brom, SportMail’s Chris Young spoke with Sunderland winger Adam Johnson about his hopes for Gus Poyet’s first full season at the helm.

ADAM JOHNSON offers a tongue-in-cheek golden nugget for headline-writers - Champions League football for Sunderland next season.

No, Johnson is not hallucinating.

Neither should his remarks be spun into one of those mocking tabloid yarns.

Sitting with Johnson prior to the start of the Premier League campaign, the Sunderland winger is simply in reflective mood; looking back to Gus Poyet’s “miracle” which kept the Black Cats in the top flight.

Inevitably, Johnson is asked whether Sunderland can channel the momentum from remaining in the Premier League into the start of the new campaign.

After taking 13 points from those final six games - including wins at Chelsea and Manchester United - Johnson would jump at another run like that early doors after Sunderland lost seven of their opening eight league outings last time around.

“If we get results like that and play like that, we won’t be struggling with relegation,” he said.

“If we can keep that form from the last six games, we were in top three form, especially with the places we were going and winning at.

“Get results like that, we’ll be going for the Champions League!”

On a more realistic note, the top 10, rather than the top four, would be considered a lofty achievement this season after Sunderland have come so close to the drop in each of the last two years.

Reaching 40 points will be the first and foremost task for Poyet’s side.

And even if Sunderland cannot replicate the results of the Great Escape on a consistent basis, Johnson believes there are lessons to be drawn from that remarkable run.

When time was running out to deliver, the Black Cats finally found the knack of winning - regardless of the obstacles put in front of them.

At both Stamford Bridge and the Etihad, Sunderland fell behind early on, yet managed a four-point haul from two of the league’s top three.

Sunderland didn’t choke in the ‘winnable’ games either after comfortably swatting aside both Cardiff and West Brom.

That is something Sunderland have struggled with throughout Johnson’s two years on Wearside.

The opening game of last season was a case in point, as Sunderland limped to a 1-0 defeat against a Fulham side who went on to finish second bottom.

“It’s putting those performances from the end of last season into the games at home against teams we should be beating,” said Johnson.

“If we can get the balance right between those two, we shouldn’t have a problem.

“The start is massive for us.

“In fairness last season, we should never have got beat on the opening day against Fulham at home. They were shocking and we played well. It was just a smash and grab.

“But since I’ve signed, there’s been so many games like that - we do alright and can’t win games.

“That’s what it’s all about. We need to find that way of grinding out results, which we did towards the end of last season.

“At times, it wasn’t pretty, but we dug in, defended well and got results when we needed them.”

Johnson finds it difficult to be too scathing over last season too.

The successful climax ensured it became one of the most memorable campaigns in Sunderland’s history; even if the England international is looking for a calmer feel to proceedings this time around.

“Last season turned out to be probably one of the best seasons Sunderland have had which just shows how quickly it can all change,” he said.

“We finished comfortably clear of relegation in the end considering where we were and we got to the cup final where we lost against the best team in England.

“And we beat Newcastle twice which is always nice.

“Now it’s a fresh start.

“Everyone starts on zero points and it’s a clean slate.

“We’ll be looking to have a bit more comfortable season than last year.”

Sunderland’s hopes of a more secure campaign, freed from the constant nail-biting and nausea which accompanies life in the relegation scrap, will be boosted by Poyet working with his players during pre-season.

Poyet was forced to fire-fight after succeeding Paolo Di Canio last October after being thrust into a shambolic situation.

But while Poyet has been frustrated in the wait to assemble all the pieces of Sunderland’s transfer jigsaw, the head coach has been able to spend time on the training ground putting his ideas across.

“It will definitely make a big difference having the manager in during pre-season,” added Johnson, who is expected to be fit for Sunderland’s opener at West Brom after being left out of their final friendly against Udinese last weekend as a precaution.

“From his point of view, he’s got the lads in right from the start and can slowly get us to do what he wants us to do.

“When he came in, he only had a couple of weeks to do that.

“But I think the way we are playing, and in training too, we’re looking like we could be good this season.”