Steve Bruce’s second season in charge at Sunderland was full of promise that suffered a post-Darren Bent slump. Aided by no less than ten summer signings, he was beginning to mould the team into one that could challenge.
Sitting sixth in the Premier League in February 2010, the loss of Darren Bent to Aston Villa meant Sunderland won only three Premier League games in the last 14 of the season and found ourselves lucky to finish tenth.
It was still more than enough to provide optimism for Steve Bruce’s third season in charge in 2011-12. The poor second half to the previous season without Bent had cast a doubt on the direction the side were taking, but the ex-Manchester United defender went to his former club for reinforcements.
Wes Brown and John O’Shea were added to the ranks to shore up the defence, while Seb Larsson, Craig Gardner and Connor Wickham were also acquired ahead of the opening day of the season at Anfield, where a spectacular volley from Larsson on his debut gained Sunderland a point.
In our first home game of the season on the following Sunday, Sunderland came back down to earth with a loss at home to Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United, going down to a Ryan Taylor goal.
It would only get worse for Bruce, and by the time Sunderland were due to face bottom of the table Wigan Athletic on the 26th November at the Stadium of Light only two wins were on the board.
Despite taking the lead against Roberto Martinez’s side via Seb Larsson, a Jordi Gomez penalty and a last-minute Franco Di Santo goal gave Wigan all three points, leaving Sunderland sitting two points outside the drop zone.
The reaction from the stands meant there would only be one outcome – Steve Bruce was sacked as Sunderland manager.
Eric Black took charge for the following fixture, which resulted in a 2-1 defeat at Molineux to a Mick McCarthy-led Wolves – with O’Neill watching on from the stands. He had been out of work for a year after leaving Aston Villa but Sunderland fans were fully behind the appointment believing he was the man to improve the club’s fortunes.
His first game in the Sunderland dugout was against fellow strugglers Blackburn Rovers, where O’Neill’s opposite number Steve Kean found himself under pressure as they sat below Sunderland, already deep in a relegation dog fight,
The 39,863 in attendance were stunned into silence in the 17th minute when Simon Vukcevic gave Blackburn the lead. Sunderland struggled to break down the Rovers backline and looked more desperate as the game wore on.
With 14 minutes remaining O’Neill rolled the dice and handed a debut to 22-year-old James McClean, another of Bruce’s summer signings, who immediately added impetus and drive to Sunderland’s game.
With six minutes remaining, Sunderland finally made it all-square with a thunderbolt from David Vaughan.
Martin O’Neill’s side could smell three points, as could the fans in the stand, as Sunderland continued to press for a winner – and in the last minute a free-kick was awarded to the home side on the edge of the area.
With that sense of anticipation you can only feel at a football match in these situations, Seb Larsson stepped up to take it. As the ball struck the net with a low strike to the goalkeeper’s right, Martin O’Neill leapt into the air and his tenure was well and truly up and running.
Unfortunately, after improving Sunderland’s form to a finish of 13th position during 2011-12, it never really clicked for Martin O’Neill at Sunderland, and he was sacked in March 2013.
Sunderland: Westwood, Brown, O’Shea, Bramble, Bardsley, Colback (McClean), Larsson, Vaughan, Richardson, Sessegnon, Wickham (Ji) Substitutes not used: Carson, Kilgallon, Meyler, Elmohamady, Noble
Blackburn Rovers: Robinson, Givet (Olsson (A. Henley)), Salgado (G. Hanley), Dunn, Samba, Dann, Lowe, Formica, Yakubu, Vukcevic, Gamst Pedersen Substitutes not used: Bunn, Blackman, Goodwillie, Roberts