Steve Bruce’s Black Cats left to rue captain’s dismissal
Sunderland may well look upon Saturday’s 2-2 draw at home to Birmingham City as a snapshot of last season.
Darren Bent was amongst the goals, snippets of genuine quality football were on show, indiscipline was a common theme throughout and, ultimately, initial promise was replaced by eventual disappointment.
Just as he did a year ago at Bolton Wanderers, Bent got the Wearsiders up and running, cooly slotting home a penalty after Fraizer Campbell had been felled by Stephen Carr.
Carr will have reason to feel hard done by, with replays suggesting that the initial contact came outside the box, but Sunderland’s bright start merited reward.
When Carr then haplessly nodded the ball into his own net, looping over £6m summer signing Ben Foster in goal, those in red and white could have been forgiven for expecting that their opening game would be a victorious one.
Yet, just as last season’s bright opening allowed for dreams of pushing towards a European spot, it wasn’t to be.
And the seeds for Sunderland’s downfall had been sown even before they doubled their advantage.
The Black Cats finished last season with the Premier League’s worst disciplinary record, and the foundations for a repeat have already been lain. Lee Cattermole, given the captaincy following Lorik Cana’s departure, found himself running a bath before rookie referee Anthony Taylor had even blown his half-time whistle.
Cattermole and his manager Steve Bruce felt aggrieved, as shown by Bruce’s foray onto the pitch to remonstrate with Taylor at the interval, but to many onlookers it seemed that Sunderland had merely picked up where they left off last season; Michael Turner, another considered for the captaincy, was absent due to a ban following his red card in last season’s closing encounter at Wolves.
Bruce will take heart from how his side, undimmed by Cattermole’s dismissal, pushed on as opposed to sitting back and soaking up pressure. Their second goal was deserved on this basis, but they visibly tired as the game entered its final stages.
And thus it was with an air of inevitability that the visitors left the Stadium of Light with a point. Simon Mignolet, making his debut for the Black Cats whilst the injured Craig Gordon watched from the sidelines, had little to do all game before having to pick the ball out of his net twice in ten minutes.
First Scott Dann rose unchallenged to nod home a corner, before Liam Ridgewell scrambled the ball in following Sebastian Larsson’s excellent delivery from a free-kick. Yet another similarity can be drawn here for Sunderland – defending set-pieces was not something they excelled at last year either.
Birmingham, the surprise package last year in their first season back in the top division, were poor. Alex McLeish will have been delighted to have escaped without defeat, whilst Sunderland will view this game as one they should have won.
But signs that this season could be a happy one for the Wearsiders are in evidence. Most notable was the pace they now seem to host in abundance, with new signing Ahmed Al-Muhammadi a particularly potent threat on the right wing.
Furthermore Bruce will have been delighted with his central defensive pairing. John Mensah was a proverbial rock, stopping anyone in a blue shirt who dared pass him. Meanwhile his playing partner Titus Bramble had an impressive debut, especially when considering the pressures he now experiences having once turned out in the black and white of Newcastle.
Bruce will now spend the rest of the transfer window looking to find a replacement for Kenwyne Jones, though Fraizer Campbell’s performance suggests he will not give up the role of second striker easily. In addition rumours abound that the former Manchester United player is chasing Wigan’s Charles N’Zogbia, a deal that would inject yet more pace into his squad.
So, not a bad first outing for the Black Cats. What they must now focus upon, and this applies to Cattermole in particular, is rectifying their disappointing cards tally. Do that, along with practicing defending set-pieces, and Steve Bruce’s second year on Wearside could turn out to be very successful indeed.