They spent four years bouncing between the Premier League and the Championship, the rubber ball that is Sunderland finally seems to be coming to rest. The question now facing Steve Bruce is how to make the next leap forward and take his team into the top half of the table. The jury, currently, is out on whether he will be able to manage it this season and, for Bruce, this might not be particularly good news. Sunderland’s average attendance crept over the 40,000 barrier last season, and how long the club’s supporters or owners will tolerate lower mid-table finishes is open to question. They have had three since they returned to the Premier League in 2007, and the concern is that stagnation or worse – a return to pitched battles against relegation – may follow if they don’t improve this year.
The good news for Sunderland – and it is really, really good news – that they have a goalscorer. Darren Bent scored twenty-four goals in the Premier League last season, a total that was only beaten by Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney. It was an exceptional achievement for a player in a team that spent most of last season in the bottom half of the table, but it is a cause for concern that last season may be as good as things get for Bent and an over-reliance on him oesn’t feel like a very secure place to be. If Ryan Noble, who has been raising eyebrows in the under-18 and reserve teams, can break through into the first team this season and fulfil some of his early potential, some of the pressure may be lifted from Bent’s shoulders, but it is now almost certain that Kenwyne Jones won’t be partnering him up front this season, as he seems almost certain now to go to Stoke City.
Sunderland’s biggest problem last season was a startling lack of consistency. They held Manchester United at Old Trafford and beat Arsenal and Liverpool at home, but won only once in their four matches against the bottom two clubs, Burnley and Portsmouth. Sunderland have some terrific creative players, such as Steed Malbranque and young midfielder Jordan Henderson (who has earned himself an England under-21 call up this evening), but Sunderland need to improve on a week-in-week-out basis if they are to improve on last season. Kieran Richardson, for example, continues to blow hot and cold, and there are one or two other issues that may give supporters a degree of cause for concern ahead of the start of the new season.
Perhaps their most pressing current requirement for the club is a new, experienced goalkeeper for the start of the new season. Scotland international Craig Gordon had played excellently throughout the tail end of last season, but he injured himself during the summer and will miss the start of the season. With Marton Fulop having left the club to join Ipswich Town, the club desperately needs a new goalkeeper for the start of the new season, even if it is only for a few weeks. They have cover, but it is cover with very little first team experience. The name that is most commonly being linked with the club is Joe Hart, but it remains to be seen whether Manchester City will allow Hart out on loan again. If Sunderland don’t get something sorted out very soon, though, they may have to rush Gordon back from his injury and run the risk of playing him when not completely fit. It’s only a temporary issue, but in a thirty-eight match season every single match is critical.
Most of Steve Bruce’s other summer signings are newcomers to the Premier League. Ahmed al-Muhammadi has been a regular in the Egypt team since 2007 and is, at twenty-three years old, highly rated in his home country. Defender Marcos Angeleri has signed for the club from the Argentinian club Estudiantes and has made a handful of appearances for his national team. Finally, Cristian Riveros scored for Paraguay at the World Cup finals and has played fifty times for his country. He joins them from the Mexican club Cruz Azul. There is always an element of risk in signing any player without any Premier League experience, but there is nothing to suggest that they will not be capable of performing in England and they will be augmented by Nedum Onuoha, who has made twenty appearances for the England under-21 team and has joined the club on a years loan from Manchester City and will provide some critical defensive cover for the team, as will Titus Bramble, who joined from Wigan Athletic a couple of weeks ago. The club’s owner, Ellis Short has been putting money into Sunderland himself of late, though, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see their name linked to the likes of Stephen Ireland and Craig Bellamy.
What Sunderland cannot afford is a repeat of last season’s fourteen match run without a win, a run which threatened a relegation battle and Bruce’s job. He managed to steady the ship in the end, but the knives were drawn for him for a while and it seems unlikely that such a repeat would be tolerated again. If they can sort their immediate goalkeeping issues out and Darren Bent can start this season as he finished last season, Sunderland should be comfortable enough. However, there remain question marks over the squad and, while a season of mid-table anonymity would allow them a little breathing space, whether that would be enough for the Niall Quinn and Ellis Short is another matter altogether. Quinn stated at the start of the summer that money would be no object to get Sunderland into the top ten in the Premier League for the first time in ten years and, with the club’s wage bill understood to be running close to the point at which it becomes unsustainable in the long term, relegation certainly isn’t an option and it is unlikely that the sort of final league positions that they have managed since returning to the Premier League will be either.