IN a corner of the footballing world attuned to doom and gloom, 2011-12 has begun with a raft of good news.
It will be Christmas before the league tables take proper shape, now they are little more than glorified form guides. But momentum is a precious commodity and for most North East clubs, theirs is in the right direction.
Gateshead sit proudly on top of the Conference, Middlesbrough are third in the Championship. Hartlepool United are fourth in League One and Newcastle United, also unbeaten, in a Champions League spot. It would be a major shock were all four to be there in May, but the more dire pre-season predictions are looking reassuringly far-fetched.
There are two big exceptions, at Conference side Darlington and Premier League Sunderland. Scrapping in one of English football’s most competitive divisions on pitiful crowds, Mark Cooper’s Quakers can perhaps be given leeway for failing to build on last season’s FA Trophy success. Already in his managerial career, Cooper has shown himself more adept at producing teams capable of rising to big cup occasions than the weekly grind of league football.
At Sunderland there are no excuses.
If Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Gateshead are much greater than the sum of their parts, the opposite can be said of the Black Cats. Often the best measure of a manager’s ability, Steve Bruce’s stock is flagging.
With the possible exception of Hartlepool, no North East team started pre-season more optimistic. While Alan Pardew operated with one hand behind his back and Tony Mowbray both, Bruce could have no complaints.
In football, like many other respects, Sunderland will never be the North East’s most glamorous outpost. But in the most literal sense, they cannot be said to be poor relations. Pardew, Mowbray and Mick Wadsworth must be wondering what they could achieve on the budgets of some of the teams beneath them in the tables.
Bruce did not lavish huge amounts in the transfer market. Many of his additions came on “Bosmans”, Nicklas Bendtner on loan. But – as Newcastle have been at pains to point out when squirming under the scrutiny over where the Andy Carroll (and Kevin Nolan, and José Enrique) cash went – there is no such thing as a free transfer. Ten new faces did not come cheap. Bruce may not have been able to extract the money to land his top target, Charles N’Zogbia, but he has still been well backed with money and patience.
This is undeniably “his” squad, yet he appears uncomfortable with it. The lack of quality down the left is alarming and Bruce has had to admit that, for now at least, his captain is not worth a place in the side. Keiren Westwood, signed to provide goalkeeping competition, has not unseated Simon Mignolet despite some less-than-convincing displays. At least Bruce seems to have belatedly recognised the need for David Vaughan to add guile to midfield graft.
Most alarming is the lukewarm attitude towards strikers Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-Won. At the moment they seem to be his only Plan B, thrown on in the second half whenever Sunderland are trailing. Playing them from the start is a leap of faith Bruce is not yet prepared to make, however. Both are new to a notoriously difficult division but an alarming lack of goals in every game bar the demolition of Stoke City (even then none came from the strikers) demands a different approach. If Ji and Wickham are not yet the answer, Bruce should not have them as his only back-up.
But for the manager to pay the ultimate price would be misguided. Panicking at the first sight of trouble is not the answer. It is something fans accept when things are going well, but too many forget when things go wrong.
It is not Bruce who was incapable of completing even simple passes at Norwich this week, nor he who looked incapable of locating a cow’s backside with a banjo and he was not hitting crosses into the first defender.
Playing for the second biggest fish in a small pool can be tough, and takes a certain character. The basic errors at Carrow Road raised doubts about whether Sunderland’s players have it.
Newcastle sacrificed Joey Barton in August without replacing him and their players rose to the challenge. When an ineffective Asamoah Gyan was bundled out of the Stadium of Light days after Bendtner’s arrival, Sunderland’s seemed to shrink.
John O’Shea – one of Monday’s guilty men – was keen to ensure Sunderland’s players fronted up to the media in the wake of their first away defeat this season, and they responded.
But almost without exception footballers are more eloquent on the field than off it. It is time they spoke up for themselves and their manager.
At the moment they are spoiling a good story.