There is a quiet revolution underway in the north east of England. After years of bouncing between the top two divisions, interspersed with an all-too brief cameo in the upper reaches of the Premier League under Peter Reid, Sunderland have found themselves on the right track to something more than stability. Led by the increasingly competent Steve Bruce, the Black Cats have made leaps and bounds in the five months Bruce has been at the helm. After their victory over Arsenal, Sunderland sit eighth in the league table and are looking up, not down.
While the first priority for every team in the Premier League, with the exception of the top four, is avoiding relegation, Sunderland should be looking for their passports. As Everton continue to struggle with injuries and Fulham, Liverpool and Manchester City stumble through rocky spells of their own, Sunderland are creeping into Europa League contention. The final two European places are currently occupied by the Reds of Merseyside and the Blues of Manchester, but Sunderland are level on points with Liverpool and just one behind City. It should surprise no-one if Sunderland crack the top seven come May.
Bruce’s journey to Sunderland has been a long and tumultuous one. After a successful playing career that peaked with leading Manchester United to trophy after trophy in the mid-1990s, the boyhood Newcastle fan began his managerial career with Sheffield United in 1998. Spending a year at Bramall Lane, Bruce took the Blades to eighth place in what is now the Championship and was also the manager during their infamous game against Arsenal. The FA Cup tie between the teams was replayed following The Gunners’ failure to return the ball to United after a Blades player had put it deliberately out of play. Instead, Kanu crossed for Marc Overmars to score. After threatening to take his players off the pitch, Bruce relented, and the game was eventually replayed with Arsenal victorious. Bruce departed Sheffield United in 1999, citing a lack of transfer funds and unrest caused by the club’s boardroom problems.
The former Gillingham player then bounced around a number of clubs, spending a year in charge of Huddersfield before being sacked in October 2000, as well as brief spells at Wigan Athletic and Crystal Palace. It was not until Bruce returned to Birmingham City in 2001 that he settled in one job. Having spent two years playing at St Andrews towards the end of his career, Bruce clearly enjoyed life in the Midlands and remained with Birmingham for six years, taking them into the Premier League in his first season as manager. After finishes of 13th, 10th and 12th, the 2005/06 season was one to forget as Birmingham were relegated. Bruce’s future looked uncertain but he hung onto his job and clinched a return to the Premier League at the first attempt.
After being denied a new contract at the time of Carson Yeung’s initial failed takeover bid, Bruce was linked to the vacancy at Bolton Wanderers in October 2007. He remained at St Andrews, but not for long. Wigan made an approach for their former manager and in November 2007, Bruce was confirmed as the new boss of the Latics. Saving the team from the north west from relegation in the 2007/08 season, an 11th place finish followed a year later, despite the departure of key players Emile Heskey and Wilson Palacios in the January transfer window. Bruce followed them out the door in June when he took over at Sunderland. Lee Cattermole followed Bruce from Wigan to Sunderland, and Cattermole exemplifies one of Bruce’s greatest managerial talents. Greeted with little fanfare when he left Middlesbrough, Cattermole became the lungs of a Wigan side ever improving under their former manager. Bruce spotted the England U-21 international’s ability and recognised his Wigan team needed exactly what Cattermole offers – endless heart, crunching tackles and intelligent passing. Before joining Bruce at Sunderland, Cattermole was linked with a move to Liverpool, with some speaking of him as a replacement for Xabi Alonso, but he is far more similar to Javier Mascherano. As we head into 2010, a World Cup year, there is certain to be speculation over which players will make a late run into Fabio Capello’s thoughts. Once he regains fitness, Lee Cattermole should be one of them.
Bruce’s ability to spot talent is in stark contrast to one of his predecessors as Sunderland boss. Bruce has either a spectacular appreciation of ability or an extensive scouting network, or perhaps both – Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa can attest to that. Roy Keane, however, displayed little eye for talent. Instead, Keane’s approach to transfers was akin to a fishing trawler, vacuuming the sea floor for whatever is available. Russell Anderson, Michael Chopra and Paul McShane were three players signed by Keane who were never Premier League quality, and together they cost in the region of £8m. McShane, now at Hull, still appears out of his depth. Greg Halford was signed by Steve Coppell’s Reading for £1.5m, rising to over £2m dependant on appearances. In no way a success at the Madejski, Halford soon moved to Sunderland for £3.5m. Exactly when Halford improved enough to justify such a rise in his transfer fee was unclear to everybody except Keane. Halford lasted six months on Wearside before the club announced they would accept offers for the former Colchester player. A series of loan spells saw Halford go to first Charlton and then Sheffield United before joining Wolves for an undisclosed fee this summer.
Kenwyne Jones was arguably Keane’s most successful signing and possibly the only positive remaining from his time at Sunderland, but the Cork native was forever unable to find a partner for the ex-Southampton striker. The closest he came was with Djibril Ciss