It is amazing how quickly things change in football. The 22nd of January saw Steve Bruce’s Sunderland reach 37 points after defeating Blackpool. Seven fixtures later and with just one solitary point added; The Black Cats find themselves in 12th place and dangerously close to being dragged into a relegation dogfight. From being on the verge of Europe to relegation contenders in the blink of an eye, so what has changed on Wearside?
The bank account may be between £18-24 million better off at the Stadium of Light but Darren Bent, whether you rate him or not, would be a huge miss for any club. Bent had a very successful 18 months at Sunderland but after joining Aston Villa in the most recent transfer window, Sunderland have found themselves in reverse; is it a huge coincidence or did Sunderland simply rely on the England international too much? When you see that Bent scored 32 Premier League goals for the Black Cats in just 58 games, then it is hard to argue that it was just an untimely coincidence. Furthermore, Bent and Sunderland’s flamboyant pre-season signing Asamoah Gyan had begun to form an ‘in sync’ partnership and looked like tormenting Premier League defenders together for years to come. Gyan, however, despite being as lively as ever, has now only scored twice since Bent’s exit (a shame for football fans, even Geordies, because we all enjoy Bolo Zenden trying to impersonate Gyan’s dancing celebrations).
The usual clichés are thrown around when a player moves on to pastures new, ‘wish him the best of luck’, ‘thank him for his services to the club’ and my personal favourite ‘I hope it works out for him.’ Not so for Steve Bruce, who wasn’t afraid to show his bitter side towards Bent, Aston Villa and Gerard Houllier, failing to observe the normal courtesies in these situations. An uncompromising manager such as Bruce does command the dressing room and perhaps Sunderland’s sudden slump has a lot to do with Bruce’s negative attitude being carried over from the office to the training ground. Good managers likes Steve Bruce absolutely affect team moral, which they must, but like all good things there is a flip side, which Sunderland are perhaps currently experiencing.
One player doesn’t make a team though, and Steve Bruce spent bold and spent big in both the transfer window leading up to the 2010/11 season and the one in January. Sulley Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon joined Bruce’s side in January, to add to the likes of Ahmed Elmohamady, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan whose services Bruce has secured either on loan or permanently for vast sums of money. Steve Bruce’s financial outlay has seen The Black Cats’ losses (as of 15th February) rise by over £1 million from the previous year, taking into account the £28 million outlay on new purchases, but doesn’t include club record signing Asamoah Gyan’s transfer fee. Any club chairman or owner would expect to see promising results in the league to justify such excessive spending when clearly it isn’t helping balance the books. Still, as Manchester City well know, throwing the cash around isn’t always a quick fix solution, it takes time for a plethora of new players to gel.
There is no denying that it was looking like it was going to be a very exceptional and promising season for Sunderland, with thoughts of Peter Reid’s back to back seventh place finishes maybe being eclipsed. Yet the sceptics out there would have realised that since Sunderland’s return to the top flight they have finished 15th, 16th and then 13th, admittedly not all under Bruce, but there is a suggestion that the Black Cats were simply over performing with their European qualification aspirations this season. Every season needs a fairytale and Sunderland were promising to be it, but, sadly for the Mackems, like seasons before them, they will more than likely finish in the bottom half.
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