Sunderland: Fulop, Barnsley, McCartney (Nosworthy ‘60), Cana, Ferdinand, Colling, Malbranque (Henderson ‘79), Cattermole, Jones, Bent (Campbell ‘90), Richardson Subs not used: Gordon, Leadbitter, Reid, Healy
Blackburn Rovers: Robinson, Jacobson, Givet, Andrews, Nelson (Olsson ‘46), Samba, Diouf (McCarthy ‘71), N’Zonzi, Roberts, Di Santo (Kalinic ‘14), Pedersen Subs not used: Brown, Emerton, Grella, Hoilett
Sometimes in football we need a bit of time and perspective to come to appreciate the true talents of an individual player, and to judge the relative merits of a squad. For a prime example of that, look no further than Kenwyne Jones and the team that Steve Bruce managed in the 2009-10 season.
I’m not sure we fully grasped just what a special talent the Trinidadian striker was a dozen years ago, and no game demonstrates his unique range of abilities more than the smash-and-grab victory we achieved against Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn Rovers team early in Bruce’s first term in charge.
After an away win over Bolton on the opening day and a home loss to Chelsea in mid-week, injury doubts over four players had dominated the manager’s thinking in the lead up to the game, with question marks over the fitness of Marton Fulop, Lee Cattermole, Lorik Cana & Steed Malbranque. However, all four managed to make the starting line-up, and Sunderland made one change from the previous game with Cattermole replacing Jordan Henderson in the middle of the park.
Sunderland’s defence was put under huge pressure right from the start, with the Lancastrians bombarding the box with the kind of direct play and set pieces that are the hallmarks of a Big Sam side. Our back line struggled to cope, and it wasn’t a surprise when the visitors took the lead through Gael Givet on 21 minutes, who drove the ball home from the edge of the box after Cattermole had cleared a whipped corner off the line.
Their lead lasted only 11 minutes - Malbranque played the ball over the Rovers’ defence from the left for Jones to run onto, who then chipped the ball round the onrushing Paul Robinson and steered it home. Cue an explosion of noise from the 37,000-strong crowd in the Stadium of Light and a spectacular acrobatic celebration from Jones.
Then in the second half, Sunderland took the lead through a wonderful arcing header from Jones, getting on the end of a beautiful cross from Cattermole and into the bottom corner. The technique on both the delivery and the finish should make any fan salivate - the kind of move that, in retrospect, smacks of Premier League quality - and once again, the celebration was absolutely world class.
Were we fortunate to get all three points? Possibly. Blackburn had two goals ruled out for fouls, the first early on following an apparent foul on Fulop (although it’s not absolutely clear from the replays precisely what the infringement was) and the second late in the game when Congolese defender Christopher Samba was judged to be interfering with play in an offside as Stephen N’Zonzi’s header looped over Fulop and into the net.
Those decisions by referee Alan Wiley prompted Rovers’ gaffer Allardyce to have a good old whine to the media after the game, bemoaning the death of proper English football at the hands of overzealous officials:
I’m really quite sick as our performances are not achieving the results we perhaps deserve. We have to be more ruthless in front of goal and have to concentrate for 90 minutes, particularly defensively. We feel a bit hard done by on the goals disallowed, certainly the first one. If that’s an infringement, then there would be 20 free-kicks and penalties given in every game.
For Bruce, it was the combination of the ongoing injury crisis and a packed fixture schedule that dominated his post-match comments. Asked about how many players were currently undergoing treatment, he played it on pretty thick:
We have got hundreds, hundreds. I wouldn’t know where to start, to be honest. I will have to make changes [ahead of the midweek League Cup game with Norwich City] because we’ve played four games, if you’ve played an international, in nine days, which is totally ridiculous at the start of a season.
With two wins out of three, this was Sunderland’s best-ever start to a Premier League campaign whilst Blackburn were left pointless, and a much Sunderland changed side went on to win 4-1 away at Carrow Road two days later.
Ultimately, Allardyce’s men finished six points and a few places ahead of us, which brings home the fact that we were probably a couple of players short of a truly competitive side. But with the likes of Malbranque, Kieran Richardson, Darren Bent, and Jones in the side we had real depth of attacking quality of the kind that we’ve struggled to replicate ever since. When I look down the team sheet for this game, I do wonder at what could have been...