With Steve Bruce's reign as Sunderland manager, rightly or wrongly, looking increasingly on borrowed time, there seems among many to be a willingness to focus upon the gloom. Indeed, many Black Cats fans seem inclined to proclaim that Bruce's entire time at the helm has been one of misfortune and misery.
This, of course, is not true. In fact, the promise with which Bruce provided the club at certain times in his reign is perhaps the reason why fans have now become so disillusioned with him – Sunderland under Bruce seemed destined for success.
At the time of writing, and probably at least until after Sunday's game at Wolves, there will be no heads on the block at SR5. However, barring a turnaround of epic proportions, it seems a matter of not if, but when.
Hence, in my first time on this particular column, I thought we'd do well to have a look at Sunderland’s top 10 performances (not necessarily results) over the past two and bit years under wor Brucey...
10. Sunderland 1-0 Manchester City, 29/08/10
This one sneaks onto the list for the resilience shown by the Black Cats. Hit by a multi-million pound barrage of attacks in the opening stages, Sunderland were lucky to hang on – a glaring miss from Carlos Tevez leaving dropped jaws all around.
Following that initial wave though, the home side settled, and began to cause their much more wealthily-acquired visitors some difficulties. Defensive strength was the order of the day here, as Messrs Richardson, Turner (then Bardsley after the break), Bramble and Ferdinand kept out a frightful attacking force. They were rewarded in the 94th minute, when Darren Bent sealed three points with a last-gasp spot kick
9. Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland, 25/09/10
In truth, this result was one that Sunderland's famous hosts got away with. Taking the lead in a manner that previous Liverpool side's would have been ashamed of – Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt making the most of a free-kick that Michael Turner clearly hadn't taken – the Reds did little more than stun their visitors into action.
Ahmed Elmohamady's cross bounced off the arm of Christian Poulsen in such a manner that even Stuart Atwell couldn't avoid giving a penalty, and Darren Bent duly equalised from the spot. Not content with being level – as they so often look to be nowadays – Bruce's men kept pushing forward. They were rewarded just after the break. Nedum Onuoha's sumptuous cross met the head of diving Bent, and Pepe Reina could do nothing to stop the ball nestling in the back of the net.
Steven Gerrard would equalise, but the Black Cats would leave ruing yet two more Atwellian faux pas – Gerrard's rather clear elbow on Danny Welbeck went ignored, while Welbeck himself was brought down in the box by Reina, only to see his penalty pleas go unmet. A draw was a good result, but Sunderland's performance merited their first Anfield victory since 1983.
8. Sunderland 2-2 West Ham United, 31/10/09
A draw salvaged from defeat, this one. Two down before half-time, Andy Reid pulled one back for the hosts before Kenwyne Jones found himself taking an early bath for raising his hands to Herita Ilunga. The Hammer's reaction was theatrical at best, but referee Andre Marriner was having none of it, and Sunderland's front man received his marching orders.
With his side 1-2 and a man down at the break, Bruce was left with a tactical conundrum. In a bold move far removed from the negativity of the current day, he threw caution to the wind, and sent his side out to attack. What followed was one of the best second-half Sunderland performances of recent times. After a ton or pressure, Kieran Richardson equalised with fifteen minutes remaining. In truth, the performance of the home side merited a win in spite of their one man deficit (though this was redressed when Radoslav Kovac was sent off) – West Ham and manager Gianfranco Zola went home happy with a point.
7. Aston Villa 0-1 Sunderland, 05/01/11
This may seem an odd choice for this list. After all, Aston Villa dropped into the relegation following this game, and Sunderland's winner came only after the hosts had seen Emile Heskey sent off.
And yet, it seemed (or so we thought) to represent a bit of a turning point for Sunderland AFC as a whole. Forever building up fan expectations only to cruelly batter them back down with a demoralising loss at poor opposition, this time they didn't succumb to type. Well before Phil Bardsley's outrageous right-footed drive, the visitors had imposed themselves against a side that remained dangerous despite their current troubles. A comfortable win at Villa had seemed to show that talk of the red and whites making it into Europe wasn't quite so fanciful after all – sadly, this result marked the last time Steve Bruce's men put in a performance that was equally good in both halves.
6. Manchester United 2-2 Sunderland, 03/10/09
Had the notorious 'Fergie time' not been added onto the end of this game – or rather, had Kieran Richardson not had himself foolishly dismissed – this game may have featured higher than number six. As it was, a late Anton Ferdinand own goal deprived Steve Bruce and his men of a famous win at Old Trafford – one which ardent Reds would have been hard-pressed to moan about.
The Black Cats took the lead when Darren Bent surprised everyone with a speculative effort on the seven minute mark, and held it until just after the break when Dimitar Berbatov equalised. Those fearing a Sunderland collapse needn't have bothered – Kenwyne Jones put the visitors back in front with a towering header just before the hour.
With Ferdinand's goal coming as basically the game's final touch, United had been level for just fourteen of the 94 minutes that were eventually played. Sunderland took the game to the recent Champions League finalists, and almost held out with ten men at until the end.
5. Sunderland 4-2 Wigan Athletic, 23/04/11
On the basis of the opening half, this game should be nowhere near this list. Two struggling teams, terrified of the perils of relegation, played out a dour and goalless forty-five minutes. After the break though, it sprang into life.
Mohamed Diame rifled home a simply incredulous effort just after the break, leaving home hearts pounding. Asamoah Gyan would then restore the balance, before hobbling off injured. And then came the upturn in performance. Jordan Henderson, grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck, powered his teammates to a 4-2 victory – one that effectively ended his side's relegation woes.
Not a great overall performance as such, but that last thirty minutes, combined with the importance of the result it garnered, merits its place in this list.
4. Sunderland 1-0 Arsenal, 21/11/09
Arsenal arrived on Wearside a little over two years ago boasting a fourteen game unbeaten run and, unenviably for the hosts, had not yet failed to score that season. All that changed on a rather cold afternoon inside the Stadium of Light though, with a Darren Bent goal proving enough to see off his boyhood idols.
The goal itself was fortuitous, but hardly unmerited. Where most observers prefer to praise attacking prowess, this Sunderland showing was defending in its most stoic form. The Gunners were allowed barely a kick in the final third, with home goalkeeper Marton Fulop rarely called into action. Chances for the red and whites were few and far between but, crucially, Bent took his when it mattered most.
3. Sunderland 0-0 Manchester United, 02/10/10
In spite of their inability to take three points at home, this was a very good performance against the perennial title-chasers. Some critics would argue that United didn't turn up; others could rightly contest that Sunderland didn't allow them to.
The visitors defended well against a home side that was growing in confidence as their season progressed, and it took a brilliant one-on-one save from Edwin van der Sar to stop Steed Malbranque from putting the Black Cats ahead. 0-0 it would end, but Sunderland's unbeaten run against the top sides in the league was deservedly continued.
2. Sunderland 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur, 03/04/10
This game was described by the usually reserved BBC in their match report as "an amazing contest" - and rightly so. The pre-match pies had barely had time to touch the mouths of the punters before Darren Bent smashed the ball home against his old side with just 34 seconds on the clock, before celebrating joyously in front of his ex-tormentors.
Bent would add another from the spot, before seeing Huerelho Gomes save two more penalties from the striker. Sunderland dominated possession throughout and looked in control, before a Peter Crouch goal set nerves jangling in the Stadium of Light.
But, in a goal befitting the winner of any game, up stepped Boudewijn Zenden. With the ball falling out of the sky ominously, the veteran Dutchman adjusted himself sufficiently before hammering a shot of exocet-like qualities high into the top corner. A wonderful way to cap an excellent performance – against a side who had started the day in fourth place.
1. Chelsea 0-3 Sunderland, 14/11/10
Oh how long ago this seems now. Just over twelve months ago, Steve Bruce took his Sunderland side to Stamford Bridge. Despite a promising start to the season, hopes for victory were scarce – if existent at all. The Blues were flying high at the top of the Premier League, two points ahead of closest challengers Arsenal – this game in hand was likely to see them open up a five point lead with just thirteen games gone. Sunderland, on the other hand, were still reeling from a 1-5 crushing at Newcastle two weeks previously. Worse still, they had lost 2-7 and 0-5 on their last two visits to the Bridge.
What followed, then, stunned everyone. In a display that was certainly the best I've seen from Sunderland in my short lifetime – and, I'd hazard a guess, is the best many more elderly fans have seen too – the visitors simply blew Chelsea away. The reigning champions' march to another league title was stopped dead in its tracks; nay, it was forced backwards irreparably.
Chances came and went in a Sunderland-dominated first half – with none taken. It seemed inevitable that the home side would hold out until the break, then come out all guns blazing after the interval. But then, from absolutely goddamn nowhere, loanee right-back Nedum Onuoha picked the ball up from a headed clearance, jinked past not one in the shape of John Obi Mikel, not two in the guise of Bosingwa, but three in the brutal stature of Branislav Ivanovic, before scrambling an off-balance effort under and beyond the mesmerised Petr Cech. Somewhere in Barcelona, Lionel Messi called the copyright authorities.
It was to get even better. First, Asamoah Gyan (boo, hiss) joined up with the also departed Jordan Henderson to slot the coolest of finishes home in front of an incensed Chelsea following – before transforming one corner of the field into a wedding disco, complete with the absolutely-off-my-face-and-dancing-like-an-dick antics of Bolo Zenden.
Controlling the game from thereon in, it was Sunderland who looked like league leaders that day. A marvellous afternoon in the capital was rounded off when Ashley Cole – poor old "£55k a week is insulting to me, I nearly crashed my car" Ashley Cole – committed the most reluctant of all backpasses into the path of Danny Welbeck, who capped a quite brilliant solo performance with the game's third and final goal.
Things may well be worse now. Okay, they're considerably worse. Bordering on apocalyptic if we go into the new year without an extra figure in the wins column. But, in spite of all that, we should never forget that single day in November last year, when Steve Bruce provided us all with a tantalising glimpse of what this club could one day become.
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