It was all looking so promising...but life as a Sunderland fan is never, ever easy...
Well...where to begin. Steve Bruce's arrival at Sunderland in 2009 caused quite a stir around Wearside with the Geordie's well-publicised roots providing a major talking point amongst many a Mackem. One thing that wasn't in doubt however was his eye for a bargain and wheeler-dealer nature as well as his success at previous club at Wigan, where he lead them to becoming an established Premiership team, churning out stars such as Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios in the process. Immediatley Bruce wasted no time in clearing the deadwood left over from serial spender Roy Keane's era in the North East, he set about building his own squad determined to awaken the sleeping giant of Sunderland AFC.
Into his third season, however, Bruce has come under increasing scrutiny after an underwhelming start to the campaign. More and more Sunderland fans seem to be losing patience with repeated bland performances and the blame is resting at the manager's door. But where did it all go wrong for Steve Bruce and his team?
#1 - Winless Streaks
Impressive victories against Liverpool (yes the one with the beachball) and Arsenal saw the Black Cats going along very well in the 2009/10 campaign however that November triumph over the Gunners proved to be the last taste of victory in the league the fans would get until March. Performances were poor during that run of 15 games without a win yet still the team managed to scrape plenty of draws ensuring they did not slip into complete turmoil. A shock 4-0 demolition of Bolton Wanderers ended the abysmal run. The early form shown by Sunderland had reared it's head. The harsh winter lessons had apparently been learned and the season ended in an improvement on the previous year. The fans were back on board.
A new season, a new squad. Yet more Keane deadwood was being trimmed away in time for the 2010/11 season. Early form the fans caught glimpses of in Bruce's debut season were repeated. The best performance I had ever seen, bar none, came in November 2010. The team headed for the capital to face the mighty Chelsea. The players burst out onto the pitch and gave everything they could give. Danny Welbeck and academy graduate Jordan Henderson ran the show as Kieran Richardson was deployed on the right wing to basically stalk Ashley Cole which worked extremely well. The whistle blew for full time. I was sat watching at home. Amazing was the word to describe what I had just watched...Bolo Zenden joining in with the legendary Gyan dance and also we had won 3-0. Unbelievable. Steve Bruce's relationship with the fans had never been healthier. Christmas came and Christmas went without a repeat of the previous season's horror run. Oh. Spoke too soon. February arrived. The Black Cats went on to lose 9 of their next 12 games. Plummeting from 6th to 15th in a matter of weeks, Bruce's men looked devoid of all confidence. Aimless performances and a gutless mentality lost the fans. Somehow we scraped 2 wins from the last 3 games and finished 10th. We'd acheived our aim but it really didn't feel like it. We'd finished ahead of Newcastle but didn't feel like celebrating that fact as much as we'd have liked. It was a bizarre end to the season. Bizarre. The two winless streaks were unacceptable. Many were feeling restless. Was Bruce really the right man for the job?
#2 - The Derby
There were wins and draws aplenty as well as 3 consecutive clean sheets leading up to the biggest game of the year. The 2010/11 Tyne-Wear derby. Bruce had the team flying in the league, now it was time for him to face the old enemy and put them in their place, proving that he was well and truly a convert to the Mackem way of life. Expectations were high. Then they were obliterated. The Halloween horror show ended in 5-1 defeat. The most painful, humiliating day of my life as a fan. The worst performance I have ever seen. Ever. Having to watch Kevin Nolan pull out his ridiculous celebration and Shola Ameobi imitate a half decent striker are harrowing experiences I couldn't wish on anybody. This was the first time Bruce came under heavy fire. Not many lost complete faith during that 15 game winless streak or the 9 losses in 12 games but this 1 single game lost a lot of fans, some of whom have wanted Bruce out ever since. Unforgivable they say, a Geordie at heart.
The months rolled by as Sunderland left 2010 with a fearsome home record of only losing twice in the entire year. Derby day seemed like a distant memory and we were sitting in the European spots. The points piled up and soon enough the home derby came around. Bus loads of Geordies brandishing '5-1' banners were crammed into the Stadium of Light to watch us yet again crumble under the weight of the occasion. Thankfully Gyan bundled home a late equaliser, deep into stoppage time to avoid the ultimate embarrassment of a double derby defeat but the fact that we were so poor was inescapable.
#3 - Letting big players leave
Captain Lorik Cana had made a big impression in the first half of his only season on Wearside. His no nonsense, hard tackling style turned him into a cult hero. But then he made the shock move to Galatasaray. A combination of wanting to be nearer his family and Champions League football had turned the head of the midfielder, who on his day could frighten anybody. Inconsistency proved to be his downfall and in the end the right decision was made to sell him.
Then came the huge January 2011 bombshell that star striker Darren Bent had asked to leave. "Rumours!" "Paper talk!" we all said but no there it was on safc.com, "Bent hands in transfer request". Sure enough within a matter of days he was paraded around Villa Park as their record signing, looking very uncomfortable indeed in his press conference. When asked, he simply deflected questions about Sunderland. Seemingly he forgot how Bruce had shown faith in him, resurrected his career and got him within an Emile Heskey's width of a plane ticket to South Africa. We were promised a replacement and although the skilful Sessegnon was brought in as a midfielder, the goalscorer was never replaced.
In the recently passed summer transfer window, speculation suddenly shot into overdrive about one Asamoah Gyan. Having frequently denied wanting out, Gyan was a firm favourite with the Sunderland faithful. Again we dismissed it as rumours. Nicklas Bendtner was to be his striker partner for the season (I'm thankful to this day knowing we didn't waste £12million on Crouch). The much maligned Dane's move was celebrated by both Sunderland and Arsenal fans alike. They are used to the likes of Henry, Bergkamp and more recently Robin Van Persie. Bendtner is not in the same class but has shown he can be a real threat in every game he's played for us. It's just a shame that his supposed strike partner had boarded a plane to the UAE to sign for that world famous Dubai-based team, Al Ain. Everybody cried "Rumour!" much like when Bent was linked away but our star man had packed his bags after the transfer window had ended and is now plying his trade earning over $200,000 a week, plus up front millions in front of a home attendance of around 250 people. You heard me. 250 people.
Bruce took a slaughtering. How could he let our star man go? We were disappointed we hadn't signed another striker to replace Bent let alone flogging our current main one off to the United Arab Emirates.
#4 - This Season
A valuable point at Anfield sparked our season into life but immediately it was followed up by another agonisingly poor defeat to our nearest and dearest. What better way could we bounce back than to convincingly beat Brighton in the cup. I would like to say that happened but we were humiliated yet again. As each game went by, more fans lost their faith in Bruce. The following 0-0 draw to Swansea, Gyan's final game, was hardly going to lighten the mood. The Chelsea game was beyond abysmal. The scoreline was 2-1 to them but it could have so easily been 5-0. The most flattering scoreline you're likely to find this season so when the Stoke game came around nobody could be bothered to turn up. The Great North Run clashed with the game meaning thousands were rather glad they had an excuse not to be around for another drubbing. The 32,000 that couldn't think of a valid excuse, myself included, trudged across the bridge feeling as though we'd already been beaten. The mood was rock bottom but it just happened to be one of those days that only football could provide. We'd gone 3-0 up within half an hour! Utter bewilderment swept through the terraces as the front runners of the GNR trickled into the stadium to take up their seats whilst eyeing up the scoreboard, mouths gaping. Seb Larsson stepped up. BANG. 4-0. Peter Crouch had a shocker. "What a waste of money!" rang around the stadium. Remarkably, once again Bruce had bought himself time as referee Kevin Friend pressed the whistle to his lips and sent the crowd home happy, eagerly awaiting Match of the Day for the first time in months.
Mackems had a spring in their steps once again. Everything appeared in a different light. We'd never been beaten by more than one goal in a game, our defensive record was sound and we'd now started to score the goals. But this is Sunderland AFC and nothing is ever that simple. An unchanged side marched out onto the pitch at Carrow Road, surely bursting with confidence. The Sky audience took up their positions in expectancy and we were served the same old lacklustre performance we'd become accustomed to. A 2-1 defeat in which we only started playing in the last 10 minutes. Our new defensive kingpin Wes Brown and (in footballing terms) the legendary Bramble were made to look like fools, the latter voted as the Sky viewer's man of the match. Bravo Newcastle fans, bravo.
So what next?
So now we're back to square one. We have no plan B and Bruce isn't prepared to play 2 up front which is what we are screaming out for. Droves have turned their back on Bruce since the Norwich game. Sick of the excuses. The club owner Ellis Short has pumped a lot of money into recruitment and although we have a good squad they appear clueless on the pitch. Larsson wide left, Richardson left back, Sessegnon up front. They are out of position and everybody knows it.
Somehow, I'm still hoping Bruce can turn things around. He's improved us year on year so has earned a chance. A massive game on Saturday at home to West Brom will yet again see the crowd turn if defeated but return if victorious. It may sound fickle but it's the truth. Sunderland fans simply don't want to suffer the same fate as they have done so often before. It's make or break time in many people's eyes. Time to step it up Mr Bruce.