So no Van Persie to face on Saturday. We may still need to hope his departure thoroughly demoralises his old Arsenal teammates. Meanwhile, ESPN launched its new club-by-club blogging corner of the main site today and Salut! Sunderland was asked to contribute. The following – posted at this ESPN link – was written amid all those rumours about Steven Fletcher and before news that Louis Saha was on the point of signing. Bienvenue si c’est vrai, Louis, and now it’s up to you to show, like SuperKev, that scoring does not end as you ease further away from 30 …
To understand how Sunderland supporters approach a new season, it is necessary to consider a long record of disappointment and false hope.
Last season’s 13th top finish – do the maths: it’s also seventh bottom – was a significant letdown but entirely consistent with the way the team had played in the first and last thirds of the season. If letdowns are something we know all about – promotions aside, Sunderland last won a trophy in 1973, year of the famous FA Cup victory over then mighty Leeds – a distinct improvement in the coming season is seen as non-negotiable.
Martin O’Neill retains the admiration and faith that accompanied his appointment last December and grew with the exhilarating early run that took the club clear of trouble. By the time form collapsed, we had edged away from danger.
But only a fool would deny that the fans’ morale has been shaken by a dismal pre-season campaign and lack of excitement on the transfer front.
Is Steven Fletcher coming? A bogus tweet sparked a flurry of excitement but a deal is not, as I write, agreed. He would be welcomed by most fans, but is hardly a world-beater whatever the extravagant value attached to him by Wolves.
That leaves Carlos Cuellar as the one confirmed addition, though probably a useful one. There is still the nagging doubt that we will be unable to hang on to our star of last season, Stephane Sessegnon. And the word is that his agent has been offering him left, right and centre. That is consistent with what I heard from respected French football writers towards the end of last season.
Let us hope O’Neill is winning the battle to persuade him to stay; the psychological impact of Sess’s departure, even if we pocketed a fabulous fee, would be severe indeed in the absence of truly inspired arrivals.
This time last year, Sunderland were reflecting on a 10th top finish, fortunate as it was, and a string of promising if unspectacular signings made by Steve Bruce over the summer: John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Seb Larsson, Connor Wickham, Craig Gardner, James McClean, David Vaughan, Keiren Westwood, Ji Dong-won and Ahmed Elmohamady.
A poor start to the season, compounded by the sudden departure of Asamoah Gyan and a home defeat to Newcastle United, put Bruce under pressure from which he never recovered. Yet contrary to his pained bleatings at intervals since his dismissal, he was given fair – many would say excessive – chance to turn things around.
By the time O’Neill arrived, Sunderland were staring yet another relegation battle in the face. A minority of fans had resented the Bruce appointment all along because of his Newcastle-supporting background but the legacy of Bob Stokoe tells its own story about how much this matters to anyone with half a brain if the team is winning.
Martin O’Neill is a world class manager. His motivational powers were self-evident in the period immediately following his recruitment by the club he supported from Northern Ireland as a boy. The introduction of McClean, late in his first match in charge, was as symbolic as it was influential. Whereas Bruce held back on giving McClean his chance, O’Neill had seen enough to convince him this was a player, raw as he was, who might change games; the substitution put such a spring into the team’s stride that a looming home defeat, to Blackburn Rovers, became a breathtaking victory.
Once safety was more or less assured, familiar weaknesses – sloppy defending, low creativity, lack of goalpower – resurfaced. Apart from the sensational performance that nearly brought victory at Manchester City, and still took the only home point conceded by the champions all season, it was a ragged run-in. All the frailties that made it so have been in abundant evidence in the pre-season games.
However the squad looks when the transfer deadline falls, the coming season looks like presenting a tough test of O’Neill’s ability to raise people’s games and bring consistency. The heart says we will challenge for a European slot; the head judges top 10 as the best we can realistically expect but also sees the coming season as a leap into the dark.
Sunderland supporters often overlook the difficulty of attracting top players – and, perhaps as important, their Wags – to the North East. It is no accident that our greatest acquisitions of relatively modern times have been Kevin Phillips, then unknown, and Niall Quinn, when his career was flagging.
More recently, Darren Bent was unhappy at Spurs, Sessegnon at PSG; both wanted footholds elsewhere and we were convenient, but one could hardly wait to get away and the other is restless.
Players move on, but for an ambitious club they must also move in. Whatever the outcome of the unedifying Fletcher saga, O’Neill must somehow find a way of strengthening the side more convincingly than seems the case with the Premier League season, and a difficult opening game at the Emirates, just days away.