Steve Bruce’s Black Cats prepare for top ten push
To the outside observer, one would expect Sunderland fans may have much to look forward to this coming season.
The Black Cats enter into Saturday’s opener at home to Birmingham City on the back of a relatively successful pre-season, whilst Steve Bruce has shorn himself of some, though not all, of the deadwood that had littered the Stadium of Light corridors in recent times.
And indeed upon Wearside, the prevalent mood is one of optimism.
Long gone, it seems, are the darkened days where Premier League seasons returned a paltry 19 or 15 points, as they did so in 2003 and 2006 respectively. Instead, following last season’s 13th place finish, Sunderland seem well set to push towards a first top-ten finish in over a decade.
For Bruce now presides over a squad which he may truly call his own. The side that lines up on Saturday afternoon will be almost unrecognisable from that which stayed up by the skin of its teeth a mere 15 months ago.
Sunderland can now lay claim to having one of English football’s most prolific scorers in recent years in the guise of Darren Bent, as well as boasting enormous potential with the likes of Lee Cattermole and local lad Jordan Henderson.
In addition, they have boosted their international pedigree. Joining fellow countryman Paulo Da Silva is central midfielder Cristian Riveros, an integral driving force in Paraguay’s journey to this summer’s World Cup quarter-finals. Following him to Wearside is the highly-rated Argentinian full-back Marcos Angeleri, as well as winger Ahmed Al-Muhammadi, often referred to as the Ã¢â‚¬ËœEgyptian David Beckham’.
And yet perhaps the most important piece of business for the Black Cats this summer was the recapturing of a man who plied his trade in the red and white stripes just last season. Central defender John Mensah, captain of Ghana, has rejoined the club on another season-long loan. The difference Mensah made to the Sunderland cause last year was staggering; they conceded a mere 13 goals when he was on the field, whilst letting ship 46 goals without him.
Though, not all glasses on Wearside are half-full.
Whilst Bruce has removed some of those whose sole contributions to the Sunderland cause were bench-warming and cheque-collecting, not all such undesirables have left the club. George McCartney, Teemu Tainio and Anton Ferdinand are just three who were this week refused a squad number, yet remain at the Stadium of Light, no doubt on relatively substantial wages.
Furthermore, some have bemoaned the sales of Lorik Cana and Kenwyne Jones. Cana, captain last year, was on his way to Galatasaray before a pre-season ball was kicked, whilst fans have questioned the wisdom of letting Jones seek pastures new at Stoke without an obvious replacement on the horizon.
Additional worries have been raised in some quarters over the club’s finances; many jumping to the conclusion that the shipping out of Cana and Jones -both first-teamers last year -means the club has become a selling one.
But what such worriers must remember is that even football is not exempt from the age of austerity in which we now find ourselves. With the exception of the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, the Premier League transfer window is now a much less wild beast than previously.
So, in their manager Sunderland must trust.
Last season was merely what can be termed as Bruce’s settling in year, and yet it was a successful one nonetheless. Whilst somewhat blighted by a three-month winless run, the threat of relegation that had plagued the club for many a year was as anonymous as it had been when they finished seventh two seasons running at the end of the 1990s.
Furthermore, Bruce’s men occasionally churned out performances that would have taken even the most optimistic of Mackems by surprise. 1-0 home wins over both Arsenal and Liverpool were particular examples, as was the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, where only a last-gasp own goal robbed them of all three points.
Therefore, the foundations for further progression have been well and truly lain.
Since taking up his role as chairman in 2006, fan favourite Niall Quinn has spoke repeatedly of taking Sunderland fans on a Ã¢â‚¬Ëœmagic carpet’ ride. Having taken that carpet from the Championship to three years of Premier League stability, Quinn and Sunderland will be hoping this will be the season it moves up yet another notch.