Steve Bruce’s first season in charge in 2009-10 wasn’t exactly one for the record books, but it was certainly and improvement on the year before. After being convinced to leave Wigan Athletic by Niall Quinn, Bruce improved the side from one that finished two points and two positions above the drop, to one that finished a respectable 13th and 14 points clear of the bottom three.
Big signing, Darren Bent, bagged 24 league goals in doing so and after early season form that hinted at a potential flirt with the European places there was optimism leading into the 2010-11 season.
The opening day of the season pitted Bruce’s side up against his former club, Birmingham City, at the Stadium of Light on a day where six players would make their debut in a 2-2 draw - where Sunderland took a two-goal lead and Lee Cattermole received a red card before half-time.
Simon Mignolet started in goal that day who had been acquired from Sint-Truiden for £2m, Nedum Onuoha was on a season-long loan from Manchester City and started at right-back, Titus Bramble eventually followed Bruce from Wigan on a free transfer and began in central defence, Ahmed Elmohamady joined initally on-loan from Egyptian side ENPPI, Christian Riveros would come on from the bench who had joined from around £3.5m from Cruz Azul in Mexico and Danny Welbeck would also see action as a substitute who had arrived on another loan deal from Manchester United.
A disappointing defeat at West Bromwich Albion followed the disappointing draw, before a home win against Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City via a last-minute Bent penalty followed to lift the spirits, and then two weeks before the visit of Arsenal was a 1-1 draw at Bruce’s previous side Wigan - that witnessed another Cattermole red card and the debut of Asamoah Gyan.
Gyan had lit up that summer’s World Cup in South Africa and had scored three goals as Ghana were a Luis Suarez hand, Gyan spot-kick and a penalty shoot-out from making the semi-finals and had joined for a club record £13m from French side Rennes.
Following Gyan’s appearance at half-time at Wigan, it was thought that after the two week break Bruce might dive straight in and pair him up with Bent from the start, but Welbeck kept his place and Sunderland came flying out of the blocks in the early stages.
It was the home side who were doing all the pressing and forcing the visitors into giving the ball away cheaply at the start - which makes the opening goal after 13 minutes all the more bizarre.
Anton Ferdinand received possession mid-way inside his own half and had options to play it back to Mignolet or across the field to Bramble, but took his time before attempting to play it long.
In the meantime, however, Cesc Fabregas had strangely ran 20 yards or so to close down the Sunderland defender. At the same time, he decided what to do with the ball, and arrived just at the point that Ferdinand made contact with the ball so that it rebounded off the Spanish midfielder's boot and looped over the keepers’ head and into the back of the net from 40 yards.
Rather than settle Arsène Wenger’s side, it only galvanised Sunderland’s resolve to take the game to Arsenal and wasted opportunities from Onuoha and Riveros should have seen Bruce’s at least go into the break level.
In the second half, the Gunners looked a different proposition and began to control the game, but that was abruptly interrupted ten minutes after the restart when Alexandre Song was sent off for receiving a second yellow card.
Despite the fact it could have quite easily been Song’s third or fourth yellow card, it didn’t stop Wenger from sarcastically patting Martin Atkinson, the fourth official on the shoulder in congratulation.
Gyan entered the action five minutes later when he replaced Riveros and chances were spurned by both sides in the last half an hour until the board went up to display there would be ‘at least’ four minutes added on.
As it entered the fifth minute of time added on allocated by referee Phil Dowd, when a corner was awarded to Sunderland.
It was at this point that Wenger and his assistant Pat Rice were hounding Atkinson on the touchline for the final whistle to be blown - to the point where it was suggested later that the legendary French manager had in fact pushed the fourth official in frustration.
When Arsenal failed to clear Andy Reid’s corner adequately, the ball dropped to Darren Bent, who drove the ball home to level the game.
Rather than be questioned on a pulsating game that Arsenal had been only seconds away from going top of the Premier League, Wenger was being asked questions of an entirely different variety:
Do not ask me to comment about decisions of the referee. I did not push anyone and I complained to nobody. The goal came in the 95th minute and if you have a watch you can see what happened. I know it is supposed to be a minimum period of stoppage time but nothing happened in the extra four minutes to justify any more.
Bruce meanwhile was left to rue the manner in which Arsenal had taken the lead as well as the fuss surrounding the additional time:
You expect wonder goals from Arsenal, not rubbish like that. I haven’t seen anything like it since my school days.
It’s never easy to take when you concede in the last 10 seconds. I know that feeling but it was glee for us this time, though to be fair to the ref I think all the fuss was over an extra 15 seconds. Andy Reid spent that long trying to get the ball back from the crowd for his corner. I still think Arsène Wenger is a genius, he just doesn’t like getting beat.
Saturday 18th September, 2010
Stadium of Light
Sunderland 1-1 Arsenal
[Bent 90’ - Fabregas 13’ (Song sent-off 65’)]
Sunderland: Mignolet, Onuoha (Zenden), Ferdinand, Bramble, Richardson, Elmohamady, Riveros (Gyan), Henderson, Malbranque (Reid), Welbeck, Bent Substitute not used: Carson, Bardsley, Da Silva, Colback
Arsenal: Almunia, Sagna, Squillaci, Koscielny, Glichy, Song, Wilshere, Fabregas (Rosicky), Nasri, Arshavin (Denilson) Substitutes not used: Fabianski, Eboue, Gibbs, Djourou, Vela