Bruce Almight - Black Cats Out Of Luck
By Gerry Smith
On Wearside, there’s been a sense of inevitability for weeks. For a while, manager Gus Poyet could do no wrong. Then came a grisly afternoon on Humberside where dreams of a second Wembley appearance in the space of six weeks were crushed by a Hull City under the tutelage of their ex-boss.
League form has fallen away as markedly as it arrived when the ex-Chelsea star came to the Stadium of Light. Now, with Sunderland’s Premier League relegation almost assured, the knives are out for the current manager. Again.
The very fact that Steve Bruce, for the third time this season, was the architect of Sunderland’s downfall, and precipitated their dive towards the Championship, is not lost on Sunderland supporters. Some of their anger against the one time Manchester United title winner is born of their side’s current predicament, without a doubt. Some of it, however, has at least some basis to it.
To look at Sunderland’s plight, the most obvious thing to look with any football team is the players. In the summer of 2011, the Black Cats were a top 10 club, albeit through an unlikely set of results on the last day of the season.
There had been problems though. Darren Bent had left for Aston Villa in acrimonious circumstances in the January transfer window and then Asamoah Gyan, scorer of a stunning Ghana equaliser at Wembley against England that season, left for the Middle East in an equally unpopular manner.
With the sale of Jordan Henderson to Liverpool for a hefty fee, it meant three of the lynch pins of the squad had departed. All under the tenure of Steve Bruce. With the departures, and the drop of form after the heights of a top six place at the start of 2011, the natives were getting restless.
Bruce, though, wasted no time in putting together another squad. Teenage striker Connor Wickham was snapped up for a fee anywhere between £8m and £13m, depending on what paper your believe. Also coming through the door were Craig Gardner, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Sebastian Larsson, and Kieren Westwood.
There were also other signings to supplement these, but they were either a loan signing (and a largely unsuccessful stint it was for Nicolas Bendtner) or were shifted elsewhere sooner or later.
Of those that remain in 2014, Keiren Westwood still sits on the bench as back-up goalie. Wes Brown, meanwhile, has spent most of his time on the physio’s bench, a good two-thirds of his time on Wearside. Connor Wickham has been out on loan more often than an Abi Titmuss videotape. Craig Gardner, John O’Shea, and Sebastian Larrsson, however, have played regularly throughout.
In that time, Sunderland have finished in 13th , 17th , and currently occupy the bottom spot. The likes of Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Paolo di Canio and presently Poyet have all tried their best, through varying methods, to get something over and above mediocrity from these players. None have succeeded.
Together with loan ranger Wickham, a long term injured defender who’s now battling a drop in form, and a keeper who rarely gets a game, it’s no wonder that fingers have been pointed in the direction of the media friendly Geordie about to enjoy a Wembley date of his own. Sunderland were left with players that palpably haven’t been good enough to cut it in the Premier League over the past three seasons.
It’s also been galling for Black Cats followers to hear the constant cries from Steve that his sacking had more to do with his Tyneside roots than anything else. Conversely, that issue only reared its head in the form of chanting after the final whistle at the last game he managed, a 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic.
Prior to that, Sunderland fans had been patient, recognising that he had built a decent side, capable of outstanding performances at times, hoping he could rebuild again after the departures of Bent, Gyan and Henderson.
They had witnessed Sunderland’s top six placing fade away alarmingly to 13th up until the last day of 2011-12, where a 3-0 win at West Ham salvaged a 10th placed finish. After the phalanx of summer signings and departures, things were no better. A humbling defeat in the League Cup away at Brighton compounded league form of just two wins in 13 games and in the middle of yet another battle to avoid the drop.
The side had been showing relegation form for the best part of a year and had shown no signs of it abating. Despite Bruce’s protestations, managers live and die by results. His time at Sunderland was killed off by that alone.
With players still from that era in the side, and others in the squad despite not playing regularly, it can certainly be argued that the seeds for Sunderland’s downfall were sown in that summer of 2011.
After all, if a managerial selection of genial motivator, simplistic old school, strict disciplinarian, or continental sophistication can’t get players motivated, or playing well enough to not be in a relegation fight between the lot of them, you can take it as read that the players simply aren’t good enough.
That’s the price you pay for signing mediocre players on sizeable contracts for a number of years. Of course, there’s certainly been more players brought in since who simply aren’t up to the job, but if you sell your best players and replace them with ineffective ones, the managers that follow have the job made that much harder.
One way or another, as Steve Bruce leads Hull City out at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup Semi-Final, a glance at the table will tell you just tell you how good or bad the same manager can be.
But don’t ask a Sunderland fan to – unless you enjoy living dangerously.