A HUSH descends over the dining room at Sunderland’s Barsinghausen training base.
On one table, Keiren Westwood, Sunderland’s skipper Lee Cattermole and Phil Bardsley. On the other, Steve Bruce, assistant Eric Black and goalkeeping coach Nigel Spink hunched over his iPhone.
The game – or iPhone app, to be precise – is ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ and after breezing questions on Japan’s borders, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and the Sahara Desert, the Black Cats contingent have got to the brink of the big one – the million-pound poser.
“Jacopo Corsi’s Dafne was the first what?” Spink asks. “Horror novel, travelling art, opera or painting?” Lifelines used up long ago, and finding the counsel of his players and the watching media pretty useless, the guess goes in from the knowledgeable backroom staff.
But to the amusement of the rest of the room their guess is wrong – it was the first recorded opera – and the seven-figure sum is whipped from under their noses.
Luckily, first impressions from the Black Cats’ German jaunt would suggest Bruce has fared better in dealing with Sunderland’s £40million question. That was the war-chest the Sunderland boss had to rebuild his playing staff after the reluctant sales of Jordan Henderson to Liverpool and Darren Bent, way back in January, to Aston Villa – the fund used to pay for nine new summer arrivals.
Five have played and worked out here in Germany and all look to have added something to the Sunderland collective. Whether it is Seb Larsson’s scintillating set-piece delivery – and yesterday’s session concluded with extensive work on attacking the Sweden winger’s teasing corner balls – or Craig Gardner with his ‘shoot on sight’ policy, there is a sense of a club refreshed as they prepare for this afternoon’s final friendly match at Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 54,000 Borussia-Park.
It is as if the travails of spring are the last thing on Bruce’s mind as he laughs and jokes with his players. There is a confidence and determination about them as they reach the conclusion of a tough but rewarding week in the Lower Saxony foothills.
“There’s nothing better than a couple of new faces to add to the squad because as well as giving everybody a lift it also puts them back on their toes,” Bruce reflects. “And we haven’t even seen O’Shea or Brown play much yet. It gives you a lift and an excitement to say, ‘We’ve bought really well’.
“We had done our homework on Westwood, Larsson and Vaughan very, very early. We showed our hand early because they were Bosmans, but we were delighted to get them all. Of course there are other problems that come with it, when you add eight. It sounds great, but you’ve got to find a formula and find a balance to the team. That’s important because you can only pick eleven.
“But the good thing is that we’ve had them all together. They’re in a camp here and that’s how I wanted it. They mix together, get to know each other better and that’s vitally important.”
Bruce explains that he hadn’t originally wanted to carry out another summer revamp but as results flat-lined during the Spring months, it became clear something had to be done. Newcastle United had uncovered their Achilles Heel over a couple of derby disasters and while the Sunderland boss had enjoyed having a young side that showed no fear, there was a lack of know-how that troubled him at times. Hence the fact that five of the nine have accrued more than 600 Premier League appearances between them.
He said: “Well for a start, I’d lost six. Bolo decided he didn’t want to stay, we lost Jordan and we lost our four loan players. We were very light last year, so we had to address it.
“The youth of the team sometimes went against us last season when we were up against it. They didn’t have the experience to handle what we were doing. “We had a lot of young players and on that front the Man U thing has probably rubbed off on me. We all enjoy a young player and developing them and I think we’ve done that very well. But I just thought that, especially defensively, to have a little bit of experience, nous and know-how would be preferable.
“I had no hesitation in doing all of the business we’ve done.”
Not that Bruce is ready to count out youth just yet. A big winner from the week has been Newcastle-born youngster Louis Laing, a beast of a teenager who looks to have made something of a breakthrough this summer. Discussions will be held with Ged McNamee and Kevin Ball when the club return on Sunday night but he is set to progress to the first-team squad. Bruce believes his progress has been “scary”.
“Look at Jordan Henderson – he grabbed me in pre-season two years ago and I only think i left him out once after that,” said Bruce. “Of course, there’s a premium on young English talent. And if you can produce them you’re going to get a lot of money for them.
“Louis Laing on Wednesday night, he played in the first-team and he’s still eligible for the youth team. He’s only 18. It’s scary. He’s got a great chance.”