STEVE Bruce has set himself the long-term mission of leading Sunderland into Europe, but admits taking on the established order of Premier League football will be a tough ask.
If the amount of money spent over the last few summers was the sole determining factor, the Black Cats ought to be fighting for a top-seven finish – but a “nearly” season has reminded Bruce of the scale of the task facing him.
“A Europa League spot has to be the aim,” said the Corbridge-born manager as he laid out his long-term goal, “but we have to be an established Premier League team.
“There are seven (who have been in the league throughout) – Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U, Liverpool, Everton, Spurs and Aston Villa. To beat that seven takes some doing but that has to be the aim.
“After that I think there have been 45 teams playing in the Premier League.
“That has to be the aim, to try to get the club established, but it is never going to be easy.”
While the four biggest and most glamorous clubs of the seven have monopolised the Champions League placings in recent years, the two to three additional European spots available to English teams have been more fluid.
While Everton, Tottenham and Villa – who have all won European trophies – can fall back on their histories, nouveau riche Manchester City are in another financial league to anyone.
Birmingham City have comparable resources to the Wearsiders and Fulham have built on previous Continental campaigns to reach the semi-finals of the inaugural Europa League. Although they need a further point to confirm it, the Black Cats can say with some confidence next season will be their fourth consecutive campaign in the top flight.
That stability is crucial as the widening financial chasm between the Premier League and Championship makes lasting success for newly-promoted teams of the kind Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and others once managed near impossible.
Still, though, Bruce looks back on his debut campaign as Sunderland manager with a feeling of what might have been. He added: “I hope they (the fans) have seen a little bit of progress this year.
“It could have been a nearly season. I go back to the (League) Cup tie against Villa. We could quite easily have knocked Villa out of the cup and who knows?
“We could have reached the cup final. I am not saying we would have done but we would have had an outstanding chance.
“We have lost 10 points in the last two minutes of games.
“Can you imagine where we would be now with 10 points on?
“It is possibly going to be one of those nearly seasons, but I hope there has been progress and we can sign one or two very, very good players in the summer to give everyone a lift because there is nothing like that.
“We have 30,000 season ticket holders, which is a staggering amount of people.
“If they can dig deep, we will try and reward them as best we can.
“I do believe there are good times around the corner here – it is up to us to deliver and sign the few players we are determined to do.”
Meanwhile, the Black Cats’ final home game this season has been moved for television.
The Bank Holiday weekend clash with Manchester United will now kick off at 4pm on Sunday, May 2, and be shown live on Sky Sports. Any tickets already sold for the game will be valid for the new date.