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The day I questioned SAFC’s ambition for the very first time

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Joseph Tulip recalls the first time he questioned Sunderland’s ambition - back when Steve Bruce was appointed to replace Ricky Sbragia as Sunderland manager.

Soccer - Sunderland Press Conference - Academy of Light Photo by Brian Heppell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Most fans have now seen Sunderland play in three different tiers of English football, and we all know where we’d like to be.

But our great club was firmly among the elite when I questioned the club’s ambition for the very first time.

I remember the day very well. It was June 3, 2009, as we prepared for our third successive season back in the Premier League. Steve Bruce was appointed as manager to succeed Ricky Sbragia, the man who stood down after keeping us up on the final day of the previous campaign.

Sbragia, a well respected coach and a good servant, had always looked like a short term appointment to steady the ship after Roy Keane’s disappointing exit.

Now I’ve never had anything against Bruce, an honest footballing man who had excelled as a player while captaining Manchester United.

His arrival at Sunderland, however, burst a bubble for me which had remained intact even during the dark days of record breaking relegations in 2003 and 2006.

Soccer - Sunderland Press Conference - Academy of Light Photo by Brian Heppell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

“That’s it,” I thought. “We’re settling for mid-table.” I phoned my dad and he felt the same.

It might seem a bit crazy in today’s climate, and harsh on a man who had done a respectable job at both Birmingham and Wigan.

But it summed up how I viewed our club, and its vast potential, ever since Bob Murray built a stadium and academy to rival the best in the land.

In a relatively recent Roker Report podcast interview, Murray compared late 90s era Sunderland to Manchester United, and you could see why.

We roared to promotion in style, winning the league with 105 points before taking the Premier League by storm, in a stadium which didn’t look too different to Old Trafford.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers - The Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

I thought we were destined for great things. We’ll bide our time, build and develop every season, rising to the top of English football and competing in Europe.

We didn’t invest sufficiently in the team, and those two seventh placed finishes in 2000 and 2001 could well have been even better.

Maybe it was teenage naivety on my part, but I didn’t question the ambition at that time. I simply thought that we didn’t have the money to spend.

I comforted myself in the thought that with continued full houses at the SoL, we’d get there. This was long before the days when TV money was so significant for Premier League clubs.

Even when we slipped out of the league with a paltry 19 points in 2003, and 15 points three years later, I didn’t question the ambition. I put it down to bad decisions at the top and poor recruitment. You see I could tolerate mistakes, provided that the aim to make us the best we possibly could be, was there.

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The arrival of Bruce, however, was the day that changed for me. After reaching for the stars under Keane and the Niall Quinn inspired Drumaville magic carpet ride, we were now settling for a manager who had led Birmingham and Wigan to very credible mid-table finishes in the Premier League.

Of course, we’d take that calibre of manager now, but in 2009 it seemed a backward step for fans who had witnessed the highs of a decade earlier and we were crying out for ambition.

Perhaps it actually was there. Bruce spent a lot of money to reassemble the squad with Ellis Short’s blessing. It yielded a tenth place finish, and I always felt Short expected even more than what Bruce and his successor, Martin O’Neill, were ultimately able to deliver.

Both were no doubt seen as safe bets, but if Short had really wanted to reach the top, he should have been looking in a different ball park for a manager truly capable of taking Sunderland into the top six.