The up-and-down world of the Sunderland supporter is, for now, up. Pete Sixsmith was not especially looking forward to an afternoon near Bolton but, while no one should be getting ecstatic about recording a second win in a season already 10 games old if you count the Carling Cup, he left the Reebok with the warm glow of encouragement …
That was better. Whether you are a Bruce In or Bruce Out person, it’s a relief to see another three points on the board and witness a second half performance that gives us some hope for the next few weeks.
Managers stand or fall by results and team selection. So far this season, Steve Bruce has had a poor set of results and has picked some teams which have not been universally acclaimed.
At the Reebok he had a full complement of players. Bendtner available, Bardsley back from suspension, Meyler fit; he was now able to select a starting X1 that would hopefully take us out of the trouble zone and into the relative comfort of mid table.
And he did. Out went Cattermole with Vaughan and Colback in the centre of midfield with Sessegnon on the left. Elmohamady joined the former Boro man on the bench and, for the first time this season, we started with two forwards as Connor Wickham made his debut alongside Bendtner – two big lads who were willing to take on Cahill and Wheater at the heart of the Bolton defence.
The first half was about as interesting as a lecture on economic growth in the Orkney islands. The 4,400 fans that filled the visitors’ end were hardly inspired and there was some grumbling. A poor Bolton side missed one chance through Pratley while the nearest we got was an O’Shea header that went wide.
Not a great match for the hordes in Bulgaria, Qatar, Malaysia and Hetton watching on TV. There was little here to suggest that the Premier League was the best in the world. The fans were quiet, which is usual for Bolton, less so for us. But the Reebok Drums were silent so at least there was one positive to take from the opening half.
The second half was much better. Wickham had done well in the first half and his body language looked good. He is a strong player and was prepared to run at Gary Cahill and accept the physical challenges that came with that.
David Vaughan began to control the midfield and was always looking to play the ball forward. The partnership between him and Colback got better as the minutes ticked on. There was never the fear that one of them would put in a couple of wild tackles and would be stomping down the tunnel. Both sought to be constructive and positive, preferring to play forward rather than backwards.
Their probing gave Sessegnon opportunities to run at Robinson and the little fella took advantage of it. He forced Jaaskelainan into a good save and his ability to lay the ball off presented an opportunity for Kieran Richardson that was well blocked by the Bolton defence.
Wickham grew stronger and hit the bar with an audacious chip but as the minutes went by it began to look as if Bolton were going to hang on for a draw.
Then, with eight minutes left, amid increasing Sunderland pressure, a poor header by Robinson ended up at the feet of Sess and he turned quickly and slammed it into the net. Cue for 4,400 loyal Red and Whites to go mad. One of them Ronnie McDonald got my lips planted firmly on his head. He may not wash for a week; 4,398 may have wished they’d been in his place.
A good save by Mignolet from Pratley kept us ahead and then a quick break by the Benin Boy saw him play in Bendtner who finished it off to seal the win.
So a good afternoon for Steve Bruce, the players and the fans. Smiles as people filed out to the cars, coaches and trains and no doubt huge smiles in the away dressing room. Chuckles and grins as the results came through and we moved up the league into the mid table position that seems to suit us well.
Vaughan, Colback and Wickham put down huge markers for regular selection. They gave us the energy, skill and the ability to open up a defence that have been lacking all season.
We may have turned the corner although it has to be said that Bolton were desperately poor and had the look of permanent strugglers. They never got hold of midfield, where Eagles and Petrov were dreadful. Davies looks as if on his last legs and produced nothing, Brown and the ever improving Michael Turner having him in their pockets.
It was a much more positive line up and maybe Bruce got Wickham’s introduction right, playing him alongside an experienced centre forward and not a dilettante like Gyan. He is a strong player but also light on his feet. He will benefit from an extended run alongside Bendtner.
Next week is another winnable game that could go a long way to defining our season. If we win (and there is nothing in the Villa side to suggest that they are any better than we are), four of the next five games (make that five after United’s debacle against City) fall into the winnable category.
By the middle of December all of this angst could even be behind us and we may be looking forward to a relaxing Christmas. But this is Sunderland isn’t it …