SUNDERLAND boss Steve Bruce was left once again cursing the Black Cats’ misfortune after losing three points at the death to a player he tried desperately to sign in January – and key man Kenwyne Jones to injury for a month.
Bruce saluted Sunderland for producing their “best performance in weeks” to leave Manchester City’s expensively assembled side floundering, but could not hide his frustration that another late goal had denied them victory.
Sunderland picked up where they left off in midweek with a barnstorming first half performance, and led for 83 minutes after Jones nodded Steel Malbranque’s precise cross.
But when Jones suffered a groin injury that could rule him out for five games, it gave Manchester City an opportunity that was eventually snatched by long-term Sunderland target Johnson deep in injury time.
Bruce sighed: “It was possibly a fair result, but the way it came about is hard to take. We were excellent in the first-half - the best we’ve played for weeks. Them making a change after 30 minutes tells you everything and to be fair they were better after the change.
“But the loss of Kenwyne was defining for us because over the last month he’s played ever so well.
“It made the second half a bit of a struggle for us because we’ve lost our focal point.
“It was a groin injury and it looks like Kenwyne will be out for a month with it. We’re due a bit of luck and we hope it’s not that severe but the kid is sore at the minute.
“But that has been the story for us this season, we build up a head of steam with a settled side and then we lose a crucial player.
“We’ve had eight who’ve been out for eight or nine weeks this season in a squad of 22 and that pushes us to our limits.”
A conflicted Bruce spoke of his pride at the performances of Craig Gordon, John Mensah and David Meyler – a late replacement for the injured Lee Cattermole.
But even the four “world class” Gordon saves which denied Craig Bellamy and Carlos Tevez couldn’t brighten the mood of a manager who has seen his side surrender 10 points this season with goals in the last ten minutes.
“Craig’s a very good goalkeeper and I thought he’d done enough to win us the match. But the search for back-to-back Premier League wins goes on,” he said.
“Have we turned a corner? Well for four weeks I think we’ve been doing okay and defensively we’ve been gone. We were 10 seconds from keeping our fourth straight clean sheet at home but it wasn’t to be. We played very, very well but it’s just not been our year. It’s deeply frustrating to concede those late goals and we have to think what could have been. We could quite easily have been sat here on 41 points.”
And Bruce appreciated the irony of Johnson – a player he tried to sign in January – scoring the injury-time leveller.
“I can see the headlines now,” he said. “I was on his case for months, unfortunately he chose Man City which was disappointing for us, but there you have it.
“He’s something different because he’s a dribbler, he wants to create things and get at full-backs. He’s a natural footballer and a very good player.”
Meanwhile, Bruce revealed this week would be spent assessing Cattermole, who is still struggling to overcome a hamstring injury. “It’s up and down with Lee. One moment he feels alright and trains, the next moment he’s sore and stiff,” he said. “We’ll see how he is but he was nowhere near on Sunday.
“He tried to train on Saturday but he was nowhere near in the end.”
Meanwhile, City boss Roberto Mancini has distanced himself from speculation that he could be Italy’s next manager.
Mancini is being touted as a contender for the job when Marcello Lippi steps down after this summer’s World Cup finals. He said: “No. I have said maybe in 10 years. I don’t know. No. It’s not for me now.”