On this day in 2009, Steve Bruce added some more quality to an already-impressive squad, bringing in Dutch international Bolo Zenden, who was a free agent after his contract at Marseille had expired at the end of the previous season, and had spent a few days training with the club.
The signing of the 33-year-old former PSV, Barcelona, Chelsea and Liverpool player was a coup. As a renown fitness fanatic – and judo black belt – age wasn’t an issue, and he initially put pen to paper on a one year deal, with the option of a second.
It was a period of change in the midfield area. After being appointed manager to replace Ricky Sbragia – who’d picked up the reins after Keane self combusted, steadied the ship and was subsequently promised a job for life – Bruce was keen to improve the quality of the squad that had survived in nail-biting fashion for the past two seasons.
Out went Whitehead, Leadbitter, Edwards and Tainio, and in came the young and highly-rated Cattermole and international captain Lorik Cana, who’d made the journey from the south of France to Southwick weeks before Zenden followed in his footsteps.
Cattermole and Cana, together with fellow newcomer Bent, had already improved the side markedly, while the likes of Michael Turner and John Mensah were also looking to be strong additions.
With four wins in the first eight – in addition to a point at Old Trafford – and sixteen goals scored in the process, there was a building sense of optimism around what Bruce was doing – and Zenden’s arrival added to that.
“We are delighted to be able to add a player of Bolo’s quality to the squad,” said Bruce.
“He has performed at the highest level year after year and he’s done extremely well during his time training with the club.
“The move happened fairly quickly. Bolo came in and it was immediately obvious that he was still supremely fit. Bolo’s performances in training have persuaded me that he has a valuable role to play this season. He brings international class, a steadying influence and a wide breadth of experience. He gives us more depth in midfield.”
Zenden subsequently told Roker Report:
“A few other teams were interested but once I was invited to come over to sunny Sunderland and saw the training ground and the stadium - it was a pretty easy choice. I wanted to be big back in the Premier League really and it was ideal for me.”
The Dutchman was named on the bench the very next day, playing for over half an hour against former side Liverpool in the infamous beachball game.
The bench was where he spent most of his time – starting only one league game – a 2-0 January defeat at Everton – and making 19 appearances from the sidelines, the highlight of which was his wonderful goal in an equally wonderful game at home to Spurs.
Despite the early-season optimism – the victory over Liverpool put Sunderland onto 16 points from nine games – we finished in 13th place on 44 points. After that initial surge we averaged less than one point per game after, mainly due to a 14 game run of no wins and seven defeats between November and March. It was, however, progress. Finally a season that didn’t go to the wire.
Zenden seemed content with the progress and, at almost 34 years of age, signed an extension on his contract.
“I’m delighted Bolo has agreed to stay with us,” said manager, Steve Bruce.
“He has played at the top level for a long time and has a wealth of experience which is so valuable both on and off the pitch. He has a great influence on his teammates and that is vital when you’re bringing through the promising young players that we are.”
On paper, the following season was progress again. For Sunderland, we finished tenth – three points better off than the previous season – and Zenden had started ten games too. A significant improvement in playing time compared to the previous year.
All wasn’t right, thought. The optimism we’d had the previous year had slowly disappeared, replaced by a growing feeling of inevitability. After Cana’s shock flit rumours of Bent’s departure simply wouldn’t go away, and contributed to a slow start to the season – the low point of which was that horror show at St James Park.
A strong response included a starting run for Zenden, and a lovely dance at Stamford Bridge, and the team got into their stride – up to sixth place before Bent, for reasons that are still unclear, quickly headed to the Midlands.
A now customary mid-season dip – eight defeats in nine games – plummeted us to 15th, before three wins in the last five gave us a flattering tenth placed finish.
In the final game of the season, away at Upton Park, Zenden – captaining the side – bagged the opener in a 3-0 win, however that was his last contribution for Sunderland, and indeed in football.
Frustrated at the long runs without a win, and the lack of a winning mentality evident throughout the club, he decided to depart, rejecting a contract to stay for a further 12 months.
Everywhere I’ve played I’ve always tried to get better individually and as a team, to finish higher in the league, to push for those extra few spots season on season and at Sunderland I couldn’t really cope with the mentality of everything being fine if we weren’t near the relegation zone - it really annoyed me and was one of the reasons I left.
It was fine to lose a game until we had to look over our shoulders, do you know what I mean? I have a mentality to keep pushing to get better. For example, yes we finished tenth but it could have been better.
Leading up to the West Ham game, we didn’t really focus on how to get that tenth place. I think that sort of mentality was a problem in why we didn’t push on and also played a role in why I didn’t sign my extension.
And there, in a nutshell, we have a fundamental issue that’s plagued Sunderland for years – only briefly disappearing during Roy Keane’s time at the club: The lack of ambition, the lack of determination to get better, improve and step things up.
And sadly, that acceptance of the ‘okay’, being content with average and a lack of desire to strive to be great is a major reason why, ten years later, we’re languishing in Division Three.