On this day in 2011, Steve Bruce’s two and a half season stint as Sunderland boss came to an end after a last-minute home defeat to his previous club Wigan Athletic resulted in wide scale demands for him to be sacked.
Bruce’s departure had been coming – however, it was a far cry from the early days of his reign in which he instantly turned the team into one that looked more than capable of holding it’s own in the Premier League after taking over from Ricky Sbragia in the summer of 2009.
Bruce had arrived from Wigan – extolling his north-east knowledge and understanding – and for a while it seemed like a match made in heaven.
He immediately raised fans’ hopes and expectations by making some some outstanding signings – Darren Bent, Lorik Cana, Lee Cattermole, John Mensah, Frazier Campbell and Michael Turner all arrived at the club, while Bolo Zenden followed a little later.
While YouTube videos of Marseille’s tough-tackling Albanian Cana raised hopes, it was the signing of Bent, that really got fans excited. The club record signing of a current England international in the prime of his career really seemed to rubber stamp the notion that Sunderland was now a different club – one that could attract big names, and compete in the higher echelons of English football.
Things started well – Bent was scoring, and had forged a strong partnership with Kenwyne Jones. Cana was at his menacing best, and we were hovering in the top third of the table for the opening months. Which was just as well, as a terrible run of no wins in 14 league games over the December-March period caused concern, and we ended up finishing 13th in the table. Progress, after our last-day escape from relegation the season before, but a disappointment after the start we’d made.
A raft of signings were made during Bruce’s next summer – Elmohamady, Mignolet, Onuoha, Bramble, Riveros and Da Silva all arrived, followed shortly after by Asamoah Gyan. Cana had disappeared, however, his hasty departure still not explained satisfactorily.
The Gyan signing in particular raised expectation, however news of his arrival was tempered a little by newspaper reports of Bent agitating for a move. It was denied by the club, however the speculation didn’t go away for long.
A terrible halloween performance at newly promoted Newcastle affected Bruce badly; a 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge a week later offered reprieve.
As with the previous season, the club was hovering around the top third of the campaign, but fell away badly in the new year – a run of eight defeats in nine games in the new year saw us drop down the table; seemingly content our good start made relegation an impossibility.
Key to this, however, was the January departure of Bent. His form had been poor in comparison to his debut season, and whatever had gone on behind the scenes was certainly impacting him negatively.
With an England place increasingly out of his grasp due to the location in which he played his football, he jumped ship for Aston Villa – Birmingham being an easier destination than Sunderland for international manager Capello. While Sessegnon was signed in the same window, he naturally failed to replace the goal threat Bent offered.
Three wins in the final five games jumped the club from 15th to 10th, giving the season an unlikely glossy look, however the new signings had failed to make much of an impact, and were certainly a step or two down from Bruce’s first summer spree: his ‘shopping at Harrods’ comments coming back to haunt him.
While Bruce’s first two seasons started strongly and tailed off, his third tailed off before it had really began.
While new signings O’Shea, Brown, Larsson and Vaughan offered Premier League experience, they did little to improve the team – and on the field it showed.
Two wins from the opening 14 league games of the season was enough to convince Short that Bruce’s time was up, with the team sitting 16th in the table.
While Bruce has subsequently cried foul over ‘never being accepted at Sunderland’, the truth is significantly different. Bruce was welcomed by the vast, vast majority of the fan base, and was well liked by most – regardless of the chants that accompanied the final whistle of his last game.
However, from January 2011 to November 2011, his league record read: P28 W5 D7 L16.
That’s why you were sacked, Steve.
Of course, in hindsight, you can argue we should have stuck with him. He’d done OK. However, we were in a strong position to take a step up in managerial quality, and on paper did so with Martin O’Neill.
Unfortunately, he didn’t work out either, and on and on we go.
At some point we’re going to have to stick with a manager for more than a year. Since Bruce’s departure nine years ago, O’Neill, Di Canio, Poyet, Advocaat, Allardyce, Moyes, Grayson, Coleman, Ross and Parkinson have all been permanent managers.
10 managers in nine years is ridiculous – and tells you exactly why we are where we are. We need stability. We need a manager who’ll be here for the long term, and build from the ground up.
Of course, a huge part of this issue is the wrong manager being appointed in the first place – and this is now where the board – or whoever is making decisions at the club these days – have their work cut out.