As we all know, there is a strange and long-running relationship between Sunderland AFC and the phrase ‘missed opportunities’.
In recent seasons, it has manifested itself in playoff semi-final losses, Wembley defeats, and countless occasions on which we have failed to take advantage of games in hand when trying to chase down fellow promotion hopefuls, much to the frustration of us all.
In the not-too-distant past, however, one glaring period in the club’s history stands out as an occasion where the ‘what if?’ factor continues to linger to this day.
I’m talking about the summer of 2011, a time during which the club found itself at a fork in the road, and opted for the route, perhaps unknowingly, that ultimately led to upheaval and turbulence, instead of consolidation and the possibility of gradual improvements season by season.
Looking back at the season that preceded this particular transfer window, there is a very strong argument that 2010/2011 still remains the only league campaign we’ve experienced in recent years that could come anywhere near representing ‘success’, certainly in league terms.
Despite some indifferent performances and poor results under the stewardship of Steve Bruce, particularly over the winter, there were also some genuine highlights (Stamford Bridge and Villa Park, for example) and we often played some very good football as well.
That we went on to finish in 10th place was testament to a squad that season that boasted an impressive array of quality. Asamoah Gyan had adapted well to the Premier League, Jordan Henderson was thriving, and the additions of Danny Welbeck, Nedum Onouha and, latterly, a certain Stéphane Sessegnon, added some class and youthful vigour to the squad.
Despite the saga leaving an extremely sour taste in the mouth, even the January 2011 loss of Darren Bent (remember former Portsmouth powerhouse Sulley Muntari arriving on loan during the same window?) didn’t derail our season, as we eventually secured a tenth-place finish and went into the off-season with a real sense of optimism.
Indeed, at the time, I was genuinely excited about what lay ahead, and was absolutely convinced that foundations had been laid that would see the club avoid a relegation battle and aim to go one better than 10th during the following season.
This, of course, was long before Ellis Short gradually drifted away from actually showing an interest in the fortunes of the club, and was still willing to provide substantial backing for his manager in the transfer market. Bruce had never been universally loved among the fanbase, but he was certainly in credit, perhaps grudgingly, by May 2011.
What happened thereafter, however, remains frustrating, as the nucleus of what was a very promising squad was reshaped, and not, overall, for the better.
Welbeck’s return to Man Utd was inevitable, and when Liverpool swooped for Henderson in a £20 million deal, there was little we could realistically do about it. Allowing Steed Malbranque to depart, on the other hand, was peculiar. He’d been playing some great football during the previous season and, despite his somewhat languid approach to the game, he could certainly have played a role the following season.
The incomings during that summer were somewhat hit or miss, and I’ve always felt that we sold ourselves short in terms of trying to lure genuinely grade-A players to Wearside. After all, we’d signed Gyan for a club-record fee the previous summer, and surely, after a top-half finish, really going ‘big’ in the market was a viable possibility.
Players like Craig Gardner and David Vaughan were solid if not spectacular additions, Wes Brown and John O’Shea came with superb pedigree, and the signing of Connor Wickham from Ipswich was hailed as a glimpse of the future. On the face of it, such transfer activity seemed reasonably exciting, even if Nicklas Bendtner, never the most consistent of players, was tasked with the role of leading the line.
This is not to say that the summer window was a total and utter failure.
The likes of Larsson and O’Shea would go on to serve the club reasonably well, but the expected progress never materialised as the 2011/2012 season began. The team seemed to lose its sense of direction, with two wins from our opening nine league games, and it became obvious that all was not well.
Perhaps predictably, the entire thing came crashing down in the autumn of 2011, after Gyan had been farmed out on loan, and Bruce eventually oversaw a decline in form and results that hastened his departure from the SOL hot-seat. Although we eventually recovered to finish in 13th, it wasn’t what any of us wanted, or even expected, from the 2011/2012 season, despite everyone’s spirits being lifted by the arrival of Martin O’Neill.
As we would later discover in subsequent years, Bruce rarely missed an opportunity to remind us, and anyone else within earshot, of his achievement in guiding the club to a tenth-place finish. He certainly flogged it to death, but with the passage of time, it looks like an ever more praiseworthy achievement.
The summer of 2011 represented, to my mind, the best opportunity for the club to really push forward since the conclusion of the 2000/2001 season. That we didn’t maximise the opportunity remains as mystifying as it does irritating, and with any luck, the current regime won’t let such chances of progress slip by during the coming seasons.