Ask Steve Bruce about his tenure as Sunderland manager at any time from 2011 to around 2017, and it is highly likely that he would have replied with a noun, a verb, and a reference to our tenth-place finish in 2010/2011.
For quite some time after his sacking in November 2011, Bruce would tell anyone who would listen how unfair his departure had been, how unappreciated he felt his efforts had been, and how grateful we should’ve been for his influence. It eventually became a running joke, but as the years went by and he found relative success with Hull City, he finally seemed to let things lie.
Nevertheless, the achievement was not to be sniffed at, not least because that season, as successful as its eventual conclusion was, featured some memorable highs as well as a smattering of crushing lows. Thanks to unforgettable moments such as that physics-defying save made by Craig Gordon against Bolton, and the unforgettable 0-3 away victory over Chelsea, we did indeed secure our highest finish since the glory years of Peter Reid.
Yes, Bruce had been faced with the mid-season loss of Darren Bent, whose departure for Aston Villa was one of the most bitter in recent Sunderland history, but the players rallied in the aftermath and our tenth-place finish, secured with a victory over a doomed West Ham, seemed to set us up perfectly.
Alas, that is what should’ve happened, but in the grand red and white tradition, we opted to take the road that led to upheaval, as an exciting squad was sliced, diced, and scattered to the four winds. Granted, we weren’t left with a ‘bad’ squad by the end of the window, but there was less out-and-out quality and more in the way of ‘workmanlike’ footballers.
First to leave was Bolo Zenden, who retired at the age of thirty four, and his departure was followed by that of the uber-classy Steed Malbranque, who moved to Saint Etienne for £1 million. To this day, I maintain that Malbranque’s departure was one of the worst mistakes in recent Sunderland history. At 31, he was playing some exceptional football at the time, and could easily have stayed for another two or three years.
Other outgoings followed, including Anton Ferdinand, who moved to QPR; George McCartney, who returned to West Ham, and Danny Welbeck, who returned to Manchester United after a hugely positive loan spell. There was also the shock departure of Asamoah Gyan, who upped sticks and headed for the Middle East on loan, after just a single season at the club.
Perhaps the saddest, if not unexpected, departure of them all was Jordan Henderson’s transfer to Liverpool. Eleven years later, only a fool would claim that it hadn’t been a success, and £20 million for an academy product did represent good business, but at the time, it was incredibly disheartening.
Nevertheless, the money was there to be spent, and we began by converting the popular Ahmed Elmohamady’s loan spell into a permanent deal, to the tune of £2 million. His arrival was followed by that of the highly-rated Ipswich prodigy Connor Wickham, for whom we paid an initial £8 million. At the time, Wickham’s capture felt like a bit of a boon, but his time on Wearside was littered with frustrations, injuries, and inconsistent performances.
Following the capture of Wickham, a flurry of further deals were struck, with varying degrees of success.
Birmingham City’s Swedish international Sebastian Larsson was signed on a free transfer, and his St Andrews teammate Craig Gardner joined for £6 million. Both players would enjoy reasonably fruitful spells on Wearside, with Larsson in particular scoring some memorable goals, not least a spectacular volley on the opening day at Anfield, and Gardner establishing himself as a useful addition to the midfield. When Blackpool’s Welsh international David Vaughan was signed from the recently relegated Seasiders, it seemed as though we were giving ourselves plenty of options.
As the window continued, and just as he had done the previous summer to bring Welbeck to Sunderland, Bruce returned to Old Trafford, and successfully, as he secured the services of United stalwarts John O’Shea and Wes Brown, who joined for £5 million and £1 million respectively.
O’Shea, much like Lee Cattermole, would find himself at the heart of the club’s turbulence in subsequent years, and the well-worn term of ‘loyal servant’ might well have been tailor-made for him.
The summer’s incomings were completed by South Korean striker Ji Dong-won, whose most notable contribution came during the memorable victory over Manchester City; Coventry City goalkeeper Kieran Westwood, Derry City winger James McClean, and Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner, who I always believed that Arsene Wenger would’ve been secretly glad to get shut of, for a season at least.
Did any of these lads really add much value? Did we fall into the trap of squad-filling signings? I’ve always thought the latter, personally.
The summer window of 2011 was one of the most notable, and arguably pivotal, of recent years.
In hindsight, it might not have been a ‘bad’ window, but there is no doubt that the team that it created was much more of a ‘mix and match’ collection of players, rather than the cohesive team we had fielded previously. The chance to continue our progress had been squandered, and a golden opportunity had passed us by.