With the transfers of Darren Bent to Aston Villa and Jordan Henderson to Liverpool adding the thick end of £50m to Sunderland’s coffers, Steve Bruce had undertaken a major rebuild during the summer of 2011.
Wes Brown and John O’Shea joined from Manchester United in a highly regarded double swoop on Old Trafford; Ji Dong-won signed for around £2m, and Craig Gardner signed from Birmingham.
The standout transfer was the signing of highly-rated Connor Wickham from Ipswich for £8m rising to £12. The 6ft 3in striker had only just turned 18 in March but had racked up more than 70 games for the Tractor Boys, and was viewed as one of the hottest properties in English football.
Complementing those incomings were a trio of free transfers; goalkeeper Keiren Westwood from Coventry, Blackpool midfielder David Vaughan and Birmingham’s Seb Larsson.
Swedish international Larsson had come through the Arsenal academy, making a handful of appearances for the Gunners (albeit out of position in defence) and moving to Birmingham for a fee of £1m after a successful loan spell.
Birmingham’s relegation had brought a disappointing curtain down on Larsson’s five years at St Andrews, which had seen him play more than 200 games for the Blues – his last victory coming, of course, against Sunderland; Larsson scoring in a 2-0 win.
Bruce had managed Larsson in the midlands, and upon signing the manager said:
Seb was a fantastic young player for me at Birmingham and he has matured into a very good midfielder. He has been courted by a number of top clubs over the summer – both in England and across Europe – so we are naturally delighted that he has chosen to come to Sunderland.
Larsson was one of two debutants in the starting lineup (Wes Brown the other), while a further five new additions were named on the bench. Only John O’Shea missed out through injury.
In the Liverpool lineup was, of course, new signing Jordan Henderson, who’d joined Kenny Dalglish’s side during the summer for a fee of £20m.
Liverpool started the game in superb form, and an early goal for the home side looked inevitable.
And, it seemed that goal would come from the spot as Sunderland conceded a penalty after only six minutes. Luis Suarez charged down Richardson’s pass on halfway and was sent clear – as he attempted to go past Mignolet, the backtracking Richardson fouled the Uruguayan. Penalty, and Richardson was lucky not to see red.
Suarez himself took the kick, but blazed it over Mignolet’s bar.
The reprieve was short-lived. FIve minutes later, Suarez headed home from an Adam free-kick – one-nil, and it was the least the home side deserved.
Another former Sunderland player making his debut for Liverpool almost doubled the lead. Stewart Downing, who had played seven times on loan for the lads in 2003, crashed a shot off the crossbar; Mignolet beaten.
While we counted ourselves fortunate to only have a single goal deficit at halftime, the second half was a different story.
Liverpool retreated and Bruce’s side came more into the game.
Just shy of the hour, we got the goal our pressure was beginning to threaten, and it was debutant Larsson who netted in front of the travelling fans.
Elmohamady’s cross from the right was met with a superb flying volley from the Swede – one-one.
A hardworking display from Sunderland ensured the opening day point; Vaughan and Ji making their first appearances for the club from the bench.
His superb goal at Anfield was the first of eight goals for the season for Larsson – by far his most productive campaign in six years at the club.
His arrival coincided with the start of huge turmoil at the club – Bruce was sacked in the November and during Larsson’s time at the club, he was also managed by O’Neill, Di Canio, Poyet, Advocaat, Allardyce and Moyes. To his credit, however, Larsson never hid, and was one of the few players during that period who genuinely seemed to care about the club.
That sort was few and far between.
Upon relegation from the Premier League, Larsson left the club on a free transfer after 203 games and 14 goals. He joined Hull City, who’d also been relegated from the Premier League, and spent a season on Humberside before heading home to join AIK.
In the summer, he started all of his country’s Euro 2020 games, captaining the team in the process, and retired from international football after retirement – 133 caps making him the third most-capped player in Swedish football history.
In a generation in which we churned through a lot of players who were happy to take the money without investing themselves fully into the club, Larsson was one of the good guys.