IN the latest skirmish in his continuing PR battle, Steve Bruce again stressed the quality of the signings he made as Sunderland’s manager.
Bruce’s eye for talent is unquestionable. The problem was, he was often too quick to lose faith in it.
By taking a fresh look at the tools he inherited, Martin O’Neill has put them to good use.
Against a Tottenham Hotspur team packed with exciting attacking talent, Sunderland’s man-of-the-match was Matt Kilgallon, written off by Bruce within weeks of putting pen to paper at the Stadium of Light.
It is more than two years since Kilgallon was bought from Sheffield United to strengthen the centre of the Black Cats’ defence.
At Goodison Park he endured a dodgy debut and it took only three more matches for Bruce to decide he had made a mistake. The Yorkshireman was jettisoned to the margins, never to regain Bruce’s trust. He will return to the ageing Merseyside ground today to make only his 12th Premier League appearance for the Black Cats with his confidence restored.
Back in the side since the on-loan Sotirios Krygiakos played himself out of it with a dreadful FA Cup performance, Kilgallon has instantly picked up where he left off when injury cut short his redemption in January.
Well protected by team-mates who understood the value of dropping off and allowing Spurs to play in front of them, he was a tower of strength on the odd occasions they broke through.
His performance was perhaps the best thing about Saturday’s 0-0 draw. The next best was that today Sunderland have another game to wipe it from the memory. The chances are that by 3pm today, it will already have gone.
There was a reasonable level of skill and commitment, but very little by way of attacking intent from either side. It was surprising how comfortable Spurs appeared with a draw, considering the tightness of their league position. Finishing as London’s top side or out of the Champions League places are both perfectly feasible, even at this stage of the season. The former would be a huge feather in their collective cap, the latter a costly miss for the second season running.
For the Black Cats, the remaining weeks are about securing a rare top-half finish – again for a second consecutive year. A point against such high-quality opposition will serve them well.
If the previous weekend’s trip to Eastlands was a demonstration of counter-attacking, this was a triumph for organisation and solidity by a team without John O’Shea, Wes Brown or a recognised left-back. Put those elements together and you have the makings of a good side.
After the game Harry Redknapp bleated about Sunderland’s negativity. He had better get used to it. Thinking a way through tightly-packed defences is one of the most important part of an England manager’s job for the majority of Wembley matches. He was far better equipped to do so than he would be with only Englishmen to choose from. When Sandro took his leave with 65 minutes left, the midfield quartet in front of Scott Parker were Aaron Lennon, Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale, a beautiful blend of guile and pace. When Spurs decided the isolated Emmanuel Adebayor was making no headway, they brought on Jermain Defoe and Louis Saha.
The tackle of the game was Craig Gardner’s as Bale threatened to go one-on-one with Simon Mignolet in the 90th minute, but playing alongside Bruce favourite Michael Turner, Kilgallon was the game’s most impressive defender, an important early clearance after Adebayor headed a van der Vaart free-kick against Phil Bardsley perhaps giving him the confidence he needed.
A couple of meaty challenges around the half-hour mark cranked up the volume on the terraces, but sadly the players were never able to respond.
Mignolet had already made his toughest save of the game by then, flopping onto Modric’s shot on the turn. Benoit Assou-Ekotto had volleyed a bouncing ball just the wrong side of the post, while Gardner dragged a shot beyond the opposite goal.
A subdued van der Vaart blazed over early in the second half after Bale skipped past Colback, filling in again to good effect out of position, and the Welshman climbed well to meet an Assou-Ekotto cross, but could only head it onto the roof of the net.
When Lennon’s clever ball played in van der Vaart, Turner was diligently back on the line to cover.
At the other end, James McClean seemed reluctant to go on the outside of Kyle Walker, and lacks the skill on his right foot at present for that to be an effective Plan B. With Parker the midfield anchor, Stéphane Sessègnon never had an opportunity to create either.
There were three penalty appeals, all suitably unconvincing. Adebayor headed at Bardsley’s hand, while Turner’s goal-line clearance clipped the ball onto his. Parker had the ball blasted at him.
It was a day when the defenders ruled. Even four months ago, few could imagine Kilgallon would emerge as its hero.