As Niall Quinn prepares to convene his inquest into the more troubling aspects of a season that ended quite happily, Salut! Sunderland begins its own review of events from August to May. As promised, our contributors are applying their own powers of scrutiny and analysis to the questions of what went right, and what went wrong. M Salut gets the game under way …
First of all, an admission. In the immediate post-match glow of seeing Sunderland rise to a respectable 10th place finish, I overlooked two details: unbeaten in London and ending the season above Newcastle United.
Of course both matter, up to a point. We can be proud of having beaten Chelsea and West Ham away, with draws at Fulham, Arsenal and Spurs. And it is gratifying to remain the top North-eastern club. But I agree with the comment from “Billy the Fish”, which appeared here among responses to Pete Sixsmith’s matchday report from Upton Park, that we should really be concerned with our own performances, our own need for trophies.
The fact is that we made a satisfactory job of the last business of the season. And in the tight jostling for position that has distinguished the 2010-2011 Premier League campaign, it made the difference between finishing as low as 14th and reaching the heights we did. In the process, courtesy of a West Brom equaliser at St James’ Park, we also ended up two places above our local rivals.
But a measure of the capricious nature of the lower two-thirds of the league is how often the identities of the teams to go down, with the already relegated Hammers, changed as Sunday afternoon wore on. It has been even tighter in France; at least in England, the traditional 40 points did in the end represent safety. With one game to go, Monaco, currently third bottom in Ligue 1, have no fewer than 44 points and could finish as we did in 10th place. Valenciennes could go down even though they have a positive goal difference.
Come back to the UK, volcanic ash permitting, and the honest SAFC supporter can admit that it has, in some ways, been a better season for Toon than for us. Tenth top was our minimum target, as set by the owner Ellis Short and surely endorsed by every fan,; we got there by the skin of our teeth. For Newcastle United, safety of any kind was paramount and they achieved it comfortably, with seven points and several places to spare.
Sunderland are the top dogs in the all-comers stakes. Newcastle won the neighbourhood scrap, outplaying us at SJP to win 5-1 and outplaying us at the SoL while only drawing. On a purely objective level, if such a thing is possible on a partisan site, I’d say they have marginally more than us to be pleased about.
I expect this series of end-of-season reviews to include a lot of scrutiny of Steve Bruce’s performance, and some calls for his head. I always said i would reserve my own judgement until the season ended, and what a difference three wins in the last five games made.
On balance, I believe he deserves another chance. Question marks exist about his tactical expertise and his ability to motivate players. Whether he likes it or not, he must expect the frequency and nature of injuries, and re-injuries, to form part of the inquest Niall Quinn has promised. That inquest must not be called off just because we managed to scramble up to Mr Short’s famous 10th place.
But if we take at face value, unless or until shown otherwise, that he is blameless in this matter, then he can actually take huge credit for dealing as well as he has with a sorely depleted squad. Look at the players out for large parts of the season and you see the makings of a decent starting 11 confined to the treatment room.
The Darren Bent saga is, I am sorry to say, in its own class with an F- threatening to bring the average end-of-term grades hurtling downwards. The decision to sell him, as explained by Bruce though he did not say whose idea it was, was a calculated gamble. It was also one that should never have been taken.
Bent may have been screaming to go. His performances may have dipped as a casualty of his mental focus on getting away. He may be criticised on grounds of dishonesty (the false public declarations of allegiance to SAFC, the supporters and the region), greed (alleged) and lack of application (self-evident).
But he should have been allowed to go nowhere, however attractive the price offered by Villa, without adequate replacement/s being in place. In place, I repeat, not vaguely expected to be available. Required to see out the rest of the season, Bent could surely have been persuaded that it was in his own interests to play well enough to impress prospective purchasers. I would sooner have had a Bent marking time and still scoring some goals, if not as prolifically as last season, than any of the players whose names were mentioned in January as targets of our our interest.
Bruce, as I have said more than once, may have been innocent in this matter. Perhaps Short and Quinn insisted on the sale and hoped for the best. We do not know and despite the calls from Salut! Sunderland and its readers for transparence, we are unlikely ever to hear the full story. So I give the manager the benefit of the doubt.
In other respects, it seems to me, he has made real progress. Some of the football we have seen has been as good as anything on offer from a Sunderland team since the peaks of the Peter Reid era.
Among individuals, Stéphane Sessegnon took time, and a win under his belt, before he settled but ended the season looking an outstanding addition to the squad. If we are to wonder at Bruce’s desire at one stage to see the back of Phil Bardsley, we also have to salute his role in encouraging the process that turned an underperforming passenger into the clear player of the season.
Asamoah Gyan was far too expensive, Rennes taking full advantage of our urgent need following Fraizer Campbell’s injury, but has done just enough to suggest he is capable of becoming a great Premier striker. The young midfielders – Henderson, Colback and, if he can fully recover, Meyler – have shown real class. Welbeck’s frustrating absences should not be allowed to obscure memories of just how strong and exciting a player he showed himself to be when fit.
Muntari did not work out, though he will forever be remembered with fondness for his role in ensuring our safety at Bolton. I am with those who have been less than wholly convinced by Elmohamady, but would say his cross for Zenden’s goal at Upton Park was a superb late flourish. Lee Cattermole’s qualities were overshadowed by the disciplinary lapses that left him playing large parts of too many games in fear of a second yellow; I would not be dejected to see him leave.
Simon Mignolet has had some fabulous games and is a great prospect, but the uneven nature of his displays suggests, with Gordon’s injury problems, that we still need to look long and hard at our goalkeeping needs. Bardsley’s storming contributions notwithstanding, the need for a settled, committed and dependable back four is unlikely to be met from existing resources.
The case for further strengthening is overwhelming; the size of Steve Bruce’s transfer pot open to conjecture. Tenth top could have been, with better luck, seventh or even sixth. But it might as easily have been 14th, or worse. The closing goal difference was appalling. No one should get carried away about a season that drifted so perilously close to the rocks.
But the mixture of good fortune and steely resolve that brought us a decent finale can be taken as a springboard to propel us to the next level, one we thought we had reached back at Stamford Bridge and Villa Park, of being an established Premier side that looks up, not down. Steve Bruce is not everyone’s choice as best boy in class and could certainly do better in some of his lessons. But he has weathered a difficult academic year and ends up with a creditable B- from M Salut in the hope that an A lies within reach one year from now.
* If you want to have your say, at similar length, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org