Allardyce might be the one to complain about having an English name but if Steve Bruce were Stephan Brucelli would the Sunderland manager still be that fat bloke with the broken nose? After mixed stints at Birmingham and Wigan at Sunderland Bruce is putting together a team that, on their day, hands out hidings even to the big boys. Despite remaining frustratingly inconsistent Sunderland look poised to assume the Everton or Aston Villa role in the Premiership i.e. the team which continues to compete on a much smaller budget than those around it and, with just that little bit more investment, could push for a Champions League place.
Rarely does one hear about Bruce’s record in the transfer market but on reflection it’s really quite impressive. Every manager makes blunders and the former defender has as well but he has a knack of spotting under-used talents at another club and bringing out the best in them. At Birmingham Christophe Dugarry excelled in the 2002-03 season and propelled Birmingham to finish in 13th place. At Wigan Bruce signed Wilson Palacios and Antonio Valencia for a combined total believed to be in the region of £2.5m. The pair were later sold on for a combined price of £28m to Tottenham and Manchester United respectively, a phenomenal return on investment. At Sunderland Bruce called Darren Bent his “best bit of business ever” after the striker netted 25 times in the 2009/10 campaign. This season Bent has begun a very promising partnership with Gyan following the World Cup, ably supported by the on loan Danny Welbeck. Very few players have managed to score for the northerners this season but their front line is decidedly menacing at any team.
Furthermore Bruce is getting the best out of centre-back pairing Michael Turner and Titus Bramble. Sunderland have the best defensive record outside the top five. They have conceded the same number as Arsenal despite the utter thrashing that they suffered at the hands of Newcastle. Bramble used to be considered to be a huge flop as a player, yet under the tutelage of Bruce at Wigan and then Sunderland he has become a very important leader on the pitch. The team looks settled and there is a good mixture of youth in the likes of Jordan Henderson and experience with Bolo Zenden. Sunderland seem like a Spurs a few years ago. They are wildly inconsistent, short of the quality and squad depth needed but play (mostly) very enjoyable football to watch. For every 0-0 with Fulham there is a 3-0 evisceration of Chelsea.
Sadly, as explored a few weeks ago Bolton lack the financial clout to sustain themselves at this level. Sunderland however are a different proposition. They can’t compete with Manchester City (who can?) but they have spent £16.5m on Bent and £13m Gyan. If they can maintain this level of performance and finish 7th or higher then, with some smart acquisitions over the summer, they could be a genuine surprise package next season. Crucially they are defensively stable, a vital pre-requisite to any strong campaign. Champions League qualification remains a pipe dream but if Sunderland manage to become like Everton or Villa, occupying fifth or sixth for a few seasons Bruce has the ability to spot cheaper talents that might, with a big slice of luck, at least give them a fair tilt at the Promised Land.
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