A 10th place finish the season before last was an improvement for Sunderland: it marked the third successive season that The Black Cats had climbed up the Premier League end of season standings, having finished 13th in the 2009/10 campaign and 16th the season before.
With their Premier League status well and truly consolidated and going into their fifth consecutive season in the English top flight with a whole host of new signings, a top half finish was expected and when, thirteen games into the season, Sunderland were within two points of the relegation zone, former Sunderland defender Michael Gray told BBC Radio 5 Live that “everybody’s expectations were for the top 10 this season and we are nowhere near that.”
However, considering that Sunderland had lost Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan up front, as well as the continued injury-inflicted absence of Frazier Campbell, and furthermore, Jordan Henderson departing for Liverpool having had a barnstorming second season in the first team, contributing with three goals, five assists and appearing in 13 clean sheet results, it wasn’t surprising that Martin O’Neill’s appointment, as resurgent as it was, could only secure a 13th place finish.
Steve Bruce’s return, before he was fired, was simply not good enough: his win ratio had become pitiful, averaging at 30% over his entire Sunderland stint, but dropping severely to just half of that figure at 15% for the 2011/12 season, with just two wins in Sunderland’s first 13 games. Falling within two points of the relegation zone was enough for Ellis Short, club owner and chairman, to change the manager at The Stadium of Light and Steve Bruce was sacked having lost to the club he left Sunderland for just over two years ago: Wigan Athletic.
It was the synergy of the Northern Irish Martin O’Neill and his compatriot James McClean that instigated Sunderland’s turnaround in fortunes. For The Mackems, the goal between January and the end of the season should have been to maintain their then position of 8th. The previous year should have served as a lesson: at the end of January 2011 The Black Cats were 6th and slipped to 10th by the end of the season, following the departure of Darren Bent. Unfortunately, Martin O’Neill couldn’t capitalise on breaking in to the top ten and satisfy those beginning of the season expectations that looked dead before he entered the building.
On a transfer front Sunderland have thus far been almost mute: signing Carlos Cuellar, which reunites the Spaniard with the man who brought him to the Premier League – O’Neill, was like an infant giving up it’s dummy; tabling several bids for Wolves’ 25-year old Scottish striker was an attempt to utter their first words (of intent); approaching their first Premier League game with nothing but a free transfer to their name is perhaps indicative of imminent speech therapy being needed. Yet this infant still comes across as bashful with the ability to cause some serious damage to the bigger boys in the playground this year.