Salut! Sunderland is always open to new writers. Hilary Fawcett’s marvellous account of her twin obsessions with SAFC and Bob Dylan has won deserved acclaim. Now Luke Harvey, absent from these pages for too long, returns with a reflections on Steve Bruce’s demise – and how one game summed up a second club’s need for change …
Martin O’Neill’s start as Sunderland manager ultimately ended in triumph, and he was given a good, up-close look at his predecessor’s legacy.
That’s not to say MON has inherited only negative aspects from Steve Bruce even if recent weeks on Wearside might have made that look the case. Bruce did leave our new manager a team of unified and hard working professionals, something David Vaughan and Sebastian Larsson reinforced with their goals.
It would be folly and rather disrespectful to think Bruce did not care about our team. Even against his former employers – Wigan – in what turned out to be his last game in charge, you could see he wanted to win just as badly as we, the fans, did.
To many Bruce cut nothing but an uncaring figure on the sidelines, a shell of the man who guided us to 10th a few months earlier and someone no longer interested in the job at hand.
But to those supporters, I appeal for a glance beyond dislike for the man to recognise that remembr he did give us many cheerful moments and who undoubtedly had a hand in making the club better than only half a decade earlier.
As far as I’m concerned Bruce wanted to be a winner. He wanted us to succeed if only because it meant that he too would be succeeding. By the time his contract was terminated he struck me as a forlorn man, bereft of ideas; it was as if he believed he had exhausted every possible option and sensed he could no longer do anything right in the eyes of fans.
Perhaps Bruce was so deeply entrenched in his own issues and problems as manager that he could not see the forest for the trees. Solutions obvious to us fans could not be seen by him, tactical changes eluded him; he could no longer react to an opponent’s game plan and his substitutions seemed premeditated rather than a response to how a game was being played or needed to be played.
I want to believe O’Neill is the man to save our season, and I see no reason why he can’t. We really needed a fresh perspective against Blackburn, something he more than provided. Bruce had resisted constant calls for change; in some cases he was probably right but in others it was plain to see what was needed. O’Neill made a few alterations, rescinding Titus Bramble’s ban and giving a start to Connor Wickham, but his main change was tactical.
Partly through his own doing, and partly through Blackburn’s game plan, the wings were used more thoroughly than at any time under Bruce. Blackburn got their early goal and seemed content to sit deep, play narrow and force us to get the ball out wide. Larsson and stand-in captain John O’Shea on the right, and Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley on the left were called upon to provide the crosses from wide – with poor results.
Unfortunately for the four aforementioned players, an imperious Christopher Samba stood tallest in the Blackburn box, clearing everything that came near him. Wickham’s slight frame and Sessegnon’s diminutive stature would pose no problems for Blackburn’s prized asset – but with the centre of the pitch congested we had no options but to keep getting the ball out wide. The impenetrable wall Samba posed, combined with the deep lying Blackburn game plan, meant that calls for Ryan Noble to be given a chance would be unheard. Despite his four goal haul in the reserves against Manchester United days earlier, Noble’s quick game will be more suited to other matches.
But O’Neill did opt for a change of personnel. Enter James McClean, perhaps Bruce’s final present to us. O’Neill tore off the gift wrapping and unleashed him on a tiring opposition. His first act of the game was to beat his man and send in a teasing cross that ended with Larsson being saved at the near post. A deserved equaliser that seemed set on eluding us was suddenly back on the agenda. It lifted the near 40,000 crowd; this game was not over after all.
The fans and players alike sensed blood, and our men on the pitch set about hunting out that equaliser. A silence had fallen over the small pocket of travelling fans; you felt they too could sense the inevitable. The only man in the stadium who couldn’t was their manager. Blackburn had been in constant retreat for the entire second half. David Vaughan, Jack Colback and later Kieran Richardson, who moved inside when McClean came on at left wing, had utter control of the ball in the centre of the park and getting the ball out to the flanks. When yet another Phil Bardsley cross failed to find a Sunderland man, David Vaughan was first to the poor clearance and his rasping shot seriously tested the strength of the net. The net held out, if only just.
The jubilation swept from the players on the pitch to he fans in the stands and the new management on the sideline. Back in the match and, everyone silently agreed, a winner was within our grasp.
Time was running out but we weren’t left waiting long. After a rash attempt to steal the ball from Bardsley, Formica handled and Larsson stood over the ball on the edge of the area. Players congregated and jostled in the box but none would have been in Larsson’s mind. He knew what he was going to do, it was in his range and, besides, he had demons to exorcise after Wolverhampton.
The free kick was inch perfect, Yakubu got his assignment in the wall completely wrong and there was sufficient spin to keep the ball well away from Paul Robinson, who had earlier twice saved well from Richardsons. We had our winner at last.
The togetherness of the squad was never more evident than during the celebrations.
For Blackburn it was a demoralising way to lose, a situation we had become well acquainted with in our previous two matches. And it heaped yet more pressure on a manager who, like Bruce, looks past the point of return with the fans.
For Martin O’Neill it was a brilliant start to hi return to management. As long as he can keep the performances coming he will have the backing of the fans; for Blackburn you have to wonder how long it will be before they follow our lead and change their management team.