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Last Rites for Sunderland

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Opposites attract at Chelsea in Sunderland's Premier League finale

Sunderland's farewell to the Premier League on Sunday takes them ominously to Stamford Bridge, en fete after Chelsea's emphatic title success but also the scene of two rare highlights of the Black Cats' 10-year stay.

Ten seasons, nine different managers and frequent brushes with relegation have reduced the Wearsiders to an existence plagued by insecurity and disappointment.

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But past battles for survival have at least produced moments of great excitement, with few more enthralling than a sensational 2-1 win at Chelsea in April 2014.

It was Jose Mourinho's first taste of losing at home in charge of Chelsea. Gus Poyet's Sunderland started and ended the game in bottom place but sustained the revival to reach the heady heights of 14th as Chelsea's title bid faltered and Mourinho had to settle for third.

Three-and-a-half years earlier, Steve Bruce had led Sunderland to an even more impressive victory at Stamford Bridge, the 3-0 scoreline justified by perhaps the club's finest team display in living memory. Bruce's detractors should note that Sunderland ended that season 10th, their only top half finish since Peter Reid took the club to seventh in 2000 and 2001.

At no point of the horrendous season now drawing mercifully to a close has the perpetually downbeat David Moyes looked capable of inspiring his players to emulate such feats.

There hasn't been another frantic end-of-season clamour for points as relegation was confirmed by the home defeat to Bournemouth on April 29, with four games still to play.

The season has duly reinforced the feeling that supporting Sunderland is not a recommended pursuit for the squeamish. If this is a club with a grand history, history is the appropriate term.

Only five teams -- Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Aston Villa -- have won the top flight title more often. But Villa's presence in the list shows how the mighty can fall, and three of Sunderland's titles date from the reign of Queen Victoria. The sixth and last was won in in 1936. Since then, the only major trophy has been the FA Cup final victory against Leeds United, then the cream of English football, in 1973.

Jermain Defoe will try to leave Sunderland fans with a good memory on Sunday.

So embarrassing did the long wait for further glory become that exiled supporters in the London branch of the Sunderland AFC Supporters' Association voted several years ago to change the name of their magazine from 5573 -- signifying the date of that remarkable 1-0 victory over Leeds -- to Wear Down South.

Optimists may point to nine promotions, some of them exhilarating, but realists would inconveniently counter that this season's humiliation also means there have been 10 relegations.

The result of Sunday's finale is relatively unimportant, however encouraging an unexpected win -- and a parting goal or two from Jermain Defoe -- would be for away fans. Come what may, Sunderland are down, Chelsea are champions and both outcomes to the season are richly deserved.

As no one knows for sure who will be playing for Sunderland in August, or even who will be the manager, it is impossible to talk with confidence of a swift return.

Newcastle United did it under Rafa Benitez, not least because they were able to hang on to key men. From goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to the admirable Defoe, any Sunderland player with a hint of Premier League ability is likely to be on the move.

One aspect of the Sunderland AFC experience will undoubtedly triumph over adversity. The level and emotional commitment of the support will remain high.

There were plenty of empty seats for the final home game against Swansea City but the official attendance, more than 38,000, illustrates just how many fans had signed up to season tickets. The season's average, 41,000+, is beyond belief given the awfulness of the play and a measly total of three home wins.

Two predictions seem safe. Sunderland will not spoil Chelsea's party on Sunday. And the the Stadium of Light has not seen its last big crowd. Sunderland passions may have been dimmed by this season's wretched surrender, but will quickly be restored if there is a fighting, winning start to life below.

Colin is ESPN FC's Sunderland blogger. Follow him on Twitter at @salutsunderland

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