Not for sale! That was the message that, ten years ago today, Steve Bruce sent out to clubs around the world casting admiring glances at star striker Asamoah Gyan after the Ghanaian’s first season at the club.
Bruce was preparing for a ‘major overhaul’ of the squad, which had finished the season in tenth place in the Premier League.
However, the tenth-placed finish masked the reality, somewhat. A run of one point from nine league games had seen the team drop from sixth to 15th (the previous season we’d gone 14 league games without a win. Streaky Steve, anyone?), and on the final reckoning, only one point separated tenth and 14th place. Sunderland were only eight points off relegation, three wins in the final five games proving mightily decisive.
The sale of Darren Bent at the end of the January transfer window had disrupted the club and supporters alike. Whatever the motivating factors (I still blame Fabio Capello’s reluctance to travel anywhere north of Birmingham to watch a Premier League game) Bent’s departure was hugely significant.
After being well backed in the transfer market by Niall Quinn, the fact Bruce was needing to ‘overhaul’ his side again was a concern, however, this was due in part to a reliance on the loan market. While no one could argue the likes of Danny Welbeck, John Mensah and Nedam Onuoha had added significantly to the side, relying so heavily on short term measures was hardly conducive to long-term stability.
Gyan had been signed after starring for Ghana in the 2010 World Cup the previous summer and had impressed with his overall play and general application. His goal return of seven league goals in 20 starts didn’t necessarily set the world alight but was commendable for a ‘second’ striker in a team that hadn’t necessarily performed consistently well.
Speculation was rife that Gyan may be sacrificed to fund another round of spending, but Bruce was adamant Gyan was staying.
Bruce told the Northern Echo’s Scott Wilson.
I have seen bits of speculation [about Gyan], but that does not worry me at all.
I have had no inquiries for Gyan. He will be better in the second year because he will be used to it more. What we need is competition for him. That is where we will try to start.
As well as losing Bent, Welbeck, Mensah and Onuoha, Bruce was also having to replace Sulley Muntari and Bolo Zenden. While Muntari hadn’t settled as hoped, he was another big player departing the ranks, while Zenden’s refusal of a new contract – in favour, it turned out, of retirement – was a body blow to Bruce’s standing at Sunderland. Zenden wasn’t impressed with the lack of drive within the club – as he told our podcast last year.
As Bruce looked to rejuvenate his team, he was scanning the free transfer market. Seb Larsson and David Vaughan – out of contract at relegated Birmingham and Blackpool respectively – were targets, as was Keiren Westwood, who was leaving Coventry.
All three, of course, ended up signing for Sunderland, along with Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Ji Dong-won, while Jordan Henderson was the summer’s big departure.
Unfortunately, it seemed this pre-season was more focused on quantity than quality, and in the hours before the fourth game of the season – a home fixture to Chelsea – news broke that Gyan was, indeed, on the move.
The signs had been there, of course. Endless speculation linking him with a move, combined with the loan arrival of Arsenal’s Bendtner, paved the way. But after the summer of denials, it still came as a surprise.
A loan deal was brokered with Al Ain – a fee of £6m sweetening the deal somewhat.
That was the beginning of the end for Bruce. While he’d quickly assembled a strong team in his early days, he’d dismantled it just as rapidly. The likes of Cana, Jones and Bent were seemingly allowed to leave with little or no resistance, while Gyan’s departure appeared to be more about the money than anything else.
All told, it gave the impression that the Bruce era was built on sand... and it crumbled quickly.
After two wins in the first 13 games (or six wins in 29 games if you include the end of the previous campaign), he was off.
It promised so much but, typically, delivered little.