Luke’s World: Sunderland set an example Blackburn may follow

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.

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8 thoughts on “Luke’s World: Sunderland set an example Blackburn may follow”

  1. I wouldn’t say Bruce didn’t care, but I feel that he had no passion for the Club. The two things are different.

  2. Jeremy, in response to your earlier post I’d say there were elements of the support who were under the impression Bruce didn’t care; I didn’t say they were right or even remotely of sensible reasoning but I’ve definitely heard beliefs that back it up. I think it may have become slightly even more apparent because of the media’s insistance that Bruce’s Mag background played some part in him being sacked, which it clearly didn’t. Just wanted to say that, but your points are all taken.

    In terms of his signings, I think there was definitely some issues with who he brought in. He obviously has a thing for Cattermole and given recent events you wonder if Cattermole will be looking for a new club now that his best friend isn’t in charge anymore. But there has clearly been a cog left out somewhere, Bruce made a reputation for himself on signing these obscure South American and little known players for little money and then selling them on for a profit at a later date after they’d made their mark. For us he brought in Angeleri, Da Silva and Riveros from that continent and they have provided the dazzling sum total of really nothing at all.

    Then, as you say, money has been wasted – and as you pointed out there have been signings he could and should have made for a smaller outlay which have backfired. I’d argue that Cattermole and Gardner are streets ahead of Whitehead and Leadbitter but certainly they haven’t shown their true value. Gardner is a talented individual, a goal scorer too, but we haven’t really seen anything that shows why he paid the money we did for him.

    On your Vaughan point, when he’s been good he’s been very good, agreed – but my worry lies with what followed. We all raved about him and Gardner after the 4-0 demolishing of Stoke, and rightly so as they both played well. But then that following week at Norwich they were both anonymous. Was the problem with sticking with the same team against different tactics, what works against Stoke doesn’t necessarily work against Norwich? But after four goals and no reply, Bruce surely couldn’t have dared breaking up that team for an away trip to Norwich? It’s one that I haven’t been able to figure out just yet.

    As always all comments, fair and reasonable or otherwise, are appreciated. Thanks guys.

  3. Although I’m the last one to launch into a stout defence of Bruce there were too many other issues for me. He wasted so much money on South Americans. Not one of them managed to achieve anything for us. He got rid of Danny Collins and much of our defensive woes are down to the absence of a bone fide left back. He was unlucky with Mensah’s injury problems particularly in his second season, and Muntari who should have been a whole lot better than he turned out to be let him down. Jones was sold and not adequately replaced even though the murmuring of Bent’s disgruntlement had already started. I’m still far from convinced that the 12M spent on Gardner and Cattermole was spent responsibly to replace the likes of Whitehead and Leadbitter. Are they any better.

    He did well to bring in Vaughan (even if he didn’t pick him as regularly as he should), and to spend 10-11M on the likes of Ji and Wickham was just foolish when there wasn’t a striker at the club ready for the first team. Larsson has been a good signing and so has Westwood. He just couldn’t make a team from whatever he had.

  4. I think that Bruce did a job at Sunderland. I think he brought some good players in, but importantly, changed the mentality. I think we have a team that doesn’t give up. I remember in years gone past Sunderland teams suffered from an underconfident attitude where heads dropped. Bruce also trimmed the wage bill.
    Having said that, this is where I think Bruce failed.
    1) Didn’t replace Bent in the summer
    2) Agreed to let Gyan go at a critical time
    3) (and most important) – Bruce didn’t quite have the tactical sharpness of someone like MON.

    If Bruce had addressed points 1 & 2, we’d be mid table now and he’d still be in charge.
    However, I don’t think Bruce is better than a mid-table manager tactically speaking.

  5. I’m not sure where the idea that Bruce didn’t care came from Luke, as that;’s not an accusation that I can say that I heard. He may have been out of his depth, and his judgement may have been lacking on several fronts, but he never created the impression that he didn’t care. I am sure that he cared deeply. How could someone involved in the higher level of the game all his life not care? He looked panic stricken and was clearly bereft of any ideas that could have improved matters as he repeated his own errors time after time. Repeatedly failing to sign a striker and insisting on playing the Egyptian who is so obviously short of the mark for the PL etc, etc, etc.

    The most remarkable thing about Bruce’s reign was his complete inability to learn from his mistakes. During the summer I was strongly advocating that we should sign Steve Morison (5 goals in his last 6 games, and 6 in total) from Millwall or Demba Ba who has now got 11 in all competitions for that lot up the road. Morison went for 3M and Ba was a free, He could have had the pair of them for a fraction of what we got for Henderson, or Bent, and for less than half of what we got for Jones even. If he had brought in either of them, our season would have been so different and he would have still been in a job. This pair have 17 goals between them which is one less than we’ve managed in all competitiions as a team so far this season. You are absolutely right when you say that he couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

  6. Funny, I said to somebody recently that MON wants us to play like Barcelona, whereas Bruce aspired to Preston North End. He could be soon at home.

  7. Good to see Luke back, especially for this terrific summing up of the game, the personalities and the situation. He catches the bind perfectly that Bruce found himself or, rather, put himself in – the man who desperately wanted to succeed but had run out of inspiration and energy. Nothing that O’Neill did on Sunday was at all revolutionary but it had proved beyond SB’s grasp. It was, as Luke says, simply a fresh perspective. And a brilliant start.
    Incidentally, has Bruce resurfaced at all since his departure or is he still keeping a low profile?

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