THEY say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but Steve Bruce is hoping he can teach some young Black Cats a few after Sunderland’s youthful side failed to seize all three points against Fulham.
It is difficult to decide whether this was two points dropped or one point gained. Sunderland were poor as an attacking force but brilliant in defence, where John Mensah was simply outstanding.
On the one hand, this was a game you feel the Wearsiders should have won if they are going to maintain a serious challenge for European football next season, yet it was also a game they probably would have lost last year.
Had they won, Bruce’s boys would have moved up to fifth in the table on Saturday night, although the draw was enough to lift them up to sixth, a position which, should they occupy it at the end of the campaign, would be enough to send their manager cartwheeling down Roker Pier in celebration.
Given the Sunderland manager’s physique, that might be pushing things a little, but there is no question Black Cats supporters are thrilled with the progress their side has made over the last 18 months.
Context is everything in football. And, while there was disappointment at a disjointed performance against a Fulham side who lacked both confidence and conviction, it remains a valuable away point for a team which is still finding it far more difficult to pick up points on the road than at home.
European football remains a target, but it was not really supposed to be a realistic one this term, and expectation levels should not ignore that fact.
A top-10 finish was the objective in August and, even though Sunderland are starting to suggest they are capable of finishing much higher than that, perspective is needed.
Bruce is gradually changing the mentality of the club and its players and, despite the lack of a spark going forward, there was incredible resilience at the back where a makeshift back line secured the Black Cats’ 10th clean sheet of the campaign.
It all amounts to progress. Twelve months ago, if Darren Bent had a bad game, you feared Sunderland would lose, yet their star man had one of those afternoons in West London were virtually everything he tried ended badly and they still came away with a point.
It is difficult to be critical of Bent.
The North East football writers’ Player of the Year has been integral to everything Sunderland have done under Bruce, but he will not want to dwell on his performance here for very long.
Wasteful in front of goal, sloppy in his hold up play and poor in his approach work, yet as every striker knows, the fact he still managed to get into a succession of goalscoring opportunities even when he is struggling in a game mean the goals will come again. If anything, Sunderland were overly-reliant on the England international last season, but they have other match winners in the team these days and it was not just Bent’s fault they failed to grab a second away win – it would have been only the fourth in the league under Bruce – of the season.
With David Meyler – it was probably too soon to throw him back into the side after seven months on the sidelines with a knee injury – surprisingly alongside Lee Cattermole in the centre of midfield, there was not much creativity, particularly as Kieran Richardson delivered another of those infuriating performances when he fails to get into a game there for the taking.
Jordan Henderson was far better on the right flank, and most of Sunderland’s best offensive moves came through him, but Sunderland do lack an out-and-out winger to stretch sides like Fulham.
Their best chance of the afternoon – and one which summed up their performance – came midway through the second half.
Fulham had enjoyed a period of sustained pressure on the visiting goal, and it needed a vital save from Simon Mignolet – in for the injured Craig Gordon – to keep out Andrew Johnson’s close-range strike.
But when Sunderland finally got the ball clear they found themselves with four attacking players against just one Fulham defender.
Richardson fed Bent and, with John Pantsil forced to go to him, substitute Asamoah Gyan was left completely unmarked.
Bent only needed to slide the ball into his path, but the attempt was over-hit and the danger evaporated.
There were other chances, Bent headed wide from a Phil Bardsley centre in the first half and also poked another effort wide from a Bolo Zenden through-ball when he should have hit the target. An incorrect offside flag spared his blushes.
However, Fulham also had their moments and, had Ahmed Elmohamady not blocked Clint Dempsey’s strike from the edge of the area, the Wearsiders would have left empty-handed.
That they at least took a point was down to the defence, marshalled expertly by Mensah after an early injury to Anton Ferdinand had forced Bruce into yet another defensive reshuffle.
The best sides are built on sound foundations and Sunderland’s defence is probably their greatest strength at the moment.
It all bodes extremely well for the future, even if this was a missed opportunity to secure a rare away victory.