Yesterday’s result at Anfield has seen a lot of chatter around this and other Blogs, mostly negative and mostly about Liverpool. However, two teams played yesterday and after an odd set-back (for my money you kick a ball when it’s still you’ve taken the free-kick) Sunderland were Liverpool’s equals. Steve Bruce has done an excellent job picking up the reins from Ricky Sbragia after Roy Keane’s Irish experiment. Sunderland are almost unrecognisable from that time but they have maintained a high level in the Premier League, they may not be challenging for Europe just yet but on the evidence of this season and last they will be very soon. The main factor behind this revival has been the influx of Niall Quinn’s money and the exceptional way that Steve Bruce has used it.
Harry Redknapp lost it when he was referred to as a ‘Wheeler-dealer’, the reaction from everyone else seemed to be a bit of an over-reaction but that he was right to feel aggrieved as he was now a Champions League manager. If he is no longer worthy of that tag then his natural successor must be Steve Bruce. Over the last 3 years Steve Bruce’s transfer record is enviable in the quantity and quality of the players brought in. They may not all be gems but Bruce has brought some very good footballers to these shores that may not have had the chance otherwise.
The key to a successful ‘wheeler-dealer’ is to use all the resources at your disposal positively. Whether it be free-agent signings, small acquisitions, transfers for the future or blockbuster moves a true wheeler-dealer will use all of these to improve his football club. Something that Steve Bruce has done continuously over the last 3 years. Though I must be clear, whilst Steve Bruce maintains the overall responsibility for transfers his scouting network has been instrumental in all of the below. These people will very rarely get the kudos but bear in mind that Ricky Sbragia did not leave Sunderland when Bruce arrived but took up the post of chief scout.
When Bruce took over at Wigan in November 2007 it was after some animosity at his previous club. Wigan improved under Bruce after a disastrous reign under Chris Hutchings and in his first transfer window he showed the pedigree of his scouting network and his eye for a player. Wilson Palacios was already in England at Birmingham but made a permanent move to Wigan, he was joined by fellow Honduran Maynor Figueroa. Wigan finished 14th that season in the summer Bruce continued to show his keen eye in the transfer market signing Lee Cattermole and Amr Zaki. Zaki caused the most interest of these signings as he was a complete unknown, however according to mysterious FIFA rankings he was the best striker in the world. Zaki roared off to an unbelievable start but off the field problems affected on-field performances and he ended the season with a whimper. Lee Cattermole was a tenacious young midfielder whose stock rose throughout the season.
The January of 2009 saw the vindication of Bruce’s transfer policy as he made a tremendous profit on Wilson Palacios, Bruce re-invested the money in another unknown in Hugo Rodallega. The Colombian striker has not been prolific but his pace and ability has made him a main-stay in the Wigan team beyond Bruce’s reign. In the summer of 2009 Bruce moved to Sunderland where under Niall Quinn he was given money to go with his transfer reputation and he did not disappoint. Bruce set about pruning the team in places selling Chopra, Edwards and Danny Collins. He used that money to bring in Bruce old boy Cattermole, Michael Turner from Hull and Frazier Campbell. In the first of a few surprisingly ambitious signings Bruce brought in Marseille captain Lorik Cana (whose one year in England was as good as it was brutal) and in one of the transfer stories of the summer bringing in Darren Bent. Darren Bent has been a revelation at Sunderland finding the form he had for Charlton in the North-East, scoring the bulk of the teams goals he is key to their continuing success. It can be no surprise that Bent was instrumental on Sunday scoring two goals but it wasn’t all about him as other Bruce signings showed their class.
Coming into this season, Sunderland continued their ambitious ways. The biggest story of course was the eventual signing of World Cup star Asamoah Gyan, the signing of Gyan can be seen as a risk in the same mould as Darren Bent and if they get the same result Sunderland could be the team to overtake Everton, Aston Villa and even Liverpool. Gyan was the star attraction but Bruce also made moves to strengthen the team around him. John Mensah’s loan was made permanent, he also brought in Titus Bramble, whose reputation has soared since his mistake’s (on the pitch) have cleared up. However the biggest surprises of the season so far have been the performances of two unknowns. Steve Mignolet was a 2 million pound singing and was thought to be the back-up to Craig Gordon, however an injury to the scot forced the young Belgian to step in and he has done a fine job. In front of him though has been the transfer that not even I noticed, as another Egyptian has stolen the limelight under Bruce. Ahmed Al-Muhammadi is on a season long loan at Sunderland and has shown exceptional talent so far, his pace and crossing ability have made him a very useful winger in England and Darren Bent has fed off of his deliveries. Ably supported by another loan pick-up in Nedum Onuoha, Sunderland have threatened down the right in every game.
Through free-agents (Zenden), loan signings (Onouha), domestic based players (Cattermole), international players (Mignolet) and blockbusters (Gyan, Bent). Steve Bruce has quietly built a very good squad at Sunderland and their results this season have been more impressive than their 10th place position is indicating. Sunderland have already played Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City and it could be better if Lee Cattermole could control himself. If the team can play like they did at Anfield for the majority of the season & keep 11 men on the pitch, Sunderland could be the surprise team of this Premier League season and it will all be built around the ‘Wheeler-Dealer’ in Steve Bruce – but I wouldn’t say it to his face just yet.