PERHAPS it was inevitable Steve Bruce would wake up yesterday with a colossal headache and no more points than he started the weekend with, but the unexpected causes of both will infuriate him, and the headache may take a long time to clear.
Sunderland’s role at Old Trafford on Saturday was akin to that of Christians at the Colosseum. A bit of fight would make it more entertaining, but the fans had come to praise Sir Alex Ferguson on his 25th anniversary as manager, and bury Bruce’s Black Cats.
Not only had Bruce the manager never tasted victory over his mentor, Sunderland’s last Old Trafford win was not just pre-Ferguson, but before the mediocrity he was brought in to end had begun. In May 1968, Matt Busby’s Manchester United were 18 days from being England’s first European champions.
While Ferguson’s players were inhibited by the party their club had thrown him, Sunderland’s were inspired. The Scot complained the last 15 minutes were “torture”, but Bruce’s satisfaction at his Black Cats had been negated within 90 seconds by the sight of Connor Wickham clutching his knee.
The number of ex-players on either side showed the close relationship between the clubs. It looked as if they had even swapped formations before kick-off. The hosts had quality centre-forwards everywhere. Sunderland’s star striker last season, Danny Welbeck, was on the left, United’s, Wayne Rooney in central midfield, the Premier League’s golden boot holder, Dimitar Berbatov, on the bench. Yet Javier Hernández was left alone up front before being joined by Welbeck after the break.
Bruce, by contrast, sent his side out in a bold 4-4-2, partly a tribute to Wickham’s goalscoring impact against Aston Villa when signs emerged of Sunderland belatedly finding some attacking chemistry from the teenager, Sebastian Larsson, Nicklas Bendtner and Stéphane Sessègnon. Now Bruce is back to a drawing board which must fast be running out of paper – and not only because of Larsson’s five yellow-card suspension.
If Simon Mignolet’s injuries against Villa left his goalkeeping pool look decidedly shadow, at the other end there is little more than a puddle. Asamoah Gyan will not be back from counting his petrodollars in the United Arab Emirates before next season. Wickham’s injury therefore leaves Bedntner and Ji Dong-Won as Sunderland’s only genuine centre-forwards.
Ji is yet to start for Sunderland. Although he was on the field more than 90 minutes on Saturday, he did little to demand he no longer be ignored. Sessègnon could partner Bendtner, but having only just been shifted wide to good effect, it would be disruptive.
If Wickham’s injury proves as serious as Bruce fears, owner Ellis Short may be under pressure to fund yet another transfer window striker search in January. Fraizer Campbell might just have made his first-team return by then but after cruciate knee ligament injuries in successive seasons, it would be grossly unfair to expect anything.
Even without Wickham Sunderland remained positive but for a second time under Bruce at Old Trafford, they undermined it with their charity.
“What do you get the man who has everything?” Bruce joked last week. From United, the answer was a stand and a statue – renaming their imposing triple-decker enclosure after the man whose success paid for it, and commissioning Old Trafford’s next bronze.
Sunderland too came bearing gifts for Ferguson. Wes Brown’s fourth Premier League own goal means having left he has now scored more Premier League goals for United than against. Fittingly, his winner came in first-half “Fergie time”. During four minutes added for injuries to Wickham and Kieran Richardson, Nani’s corner skimmed off the head of the hosts’ only Mancunian, Welbeck, to be diverted into the net by one of Sunderland’s three.
A purple patch after quarter of an hour saw Larsson hit the side-netting and Bendtner forced a stretching save after outmuscling Patrice Evra.
Referee Lee Mason and linesman Jake Collin got the right decision in the worst possible way having initially both awarded Sunderland a 67th-minute penalty for a handball actually committed by Ji.
Instead, the Black Cats’ moment came with ten minutes left after David Meyler’s ball allowed Larsson to deliver a low cross Bendtner just failed to connect with.
Although a couple of excellent outside-of-the-boot passes, a beautiful Park Ji-Sung touch, and a give-and-go between Nani and Hernández all came to nothing, it was clear Ferguson’s half-time hairdryer had been on a high setting.
When Rooney placed a low shot after 71 minutes, Westwood stretched to keep it out, then got up and pushed Evra’s follow-up over the bar for a third terrific save. His goalkeeper is one less headache for Bruce.