After a dire 3-0 home defeat by Fulham at the end of April, with 10 men unavailable, including all his strikers, Sunderland's manager Steve Bruce shook his head and declared: "We need seven players". He must have spent June rubbing his magic Davy lamp (the one that sits outside the Stadium of Light), for the club have signed nine.
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With seven having departed and others on the way out, it is the greatest turnover of staff in the Premier League this summer. Despite Jordan Henderson's move to Liverpool bringing in £20m, all the shopping has added more than £8m plus agents' fees to the losses suffered by the club's owner, Ellis Short, which run at a consistent £27m per year. So it is just as well that from the misery of that April afternoon and 14th place in the table, Bruce somehow conjured a top 10 finish, Sunderland's best for 10 years.
Bruce's remit is to establish them once and for all where a club of such tradition and support ought to be. The prospects would appear good, subject to two caveats: how quickly can the manager forge a real team from his much changed personnel? And for how long will the owner sustain such losses off the field in order to minimise them on it?
Standing on the touchline at non-League York City's Bootham Crescent (mercifully no longer called the Kit Kat Stadium) after Wednesday night's first friendly of the season, Bruce was understandably upbeat. It is hardly the time of year for a manager to sound downcast and he is by nature an ebullient figure, his glass normally well over half full. "We all know the problems we had last season," he said. "But we finished in the top 10 and that's got to be our aim again. And can we go and have a cup run? We're capable of winning five or six games to win a cup like Birmingham last season."
Birmingham, of course, are one of his five former clubs as a manager and after experiencing an interesting mix of owners and chairmen he believes he now has the best of both those unpredictable worlds in Short and Niall Quinn. "Since the owner walked into the club, we've made huge progress. He wanted the club to stop being a yo-yo and now we're going into a fourth year [in the Premier League]. So Niall and the owner can say 'well done' to themselves. I don't think I've ever signed this many players in one summer, it's a huge amount, but last season we had four on loan, then Bolo [Zenden] left and Jordan left so it was important to replace them all. [Now we must] hit the ground running."
Of the eight new players (the Egyptian Ahmed Elmohamady has additionally had last season's loan made permanent), Craig Gardner was the only one on show at York, where he slotted in well in the centre of midfield alongside the captain Lee Cattermole, one of the numerous players who ended the last campaign injured.
Like Gardner, Sebastian Larsson has arrived from Birmingham; Blackpool's David Vaughan is another excellent acquisition on a free transfer. Keiren Westwood from Coventry could be the first-choice goalkeeper while Craig Gordon finds some fitness and form; Ipswich's Connor Wickham at £13m and the unusually tall Korean Ji Dong-Won will challenge for a striker's place alongside Asamoah Gyan. But the two acquisitions Bruce is most delighted with are the experienced Manchester United pair John O'Shea and Wes Brown, as much for that they represent as their proven qualities.
"I don't think it would have been possible to sign two players like that a couple of years ago," he said. "Not because we didn't have the money but for them to make that step. Since the United boys joined, there's been a feelgood factor all round the town. Now everybody's saying we're havinga right good crack, which is terrific."
Preparation will continue with three games in Germany over the next seven days, then another three back in Britain before the opening League matches; Henderson could be making his competitive Liverpool debut against them at Anfield on 13 August and the first home game is against Newcastle.
Bruce is right that the squad appears well balanced, apart from the lack of an obvious left-sided midfielder. He would love to have secured Charles N'Zogbia, who played under him at Wigan, but that seems unlikely now. Gyan needs to take on the mantle of main striker while Wickham and Ji adapt to the higher level.
Despite the North-east being badly hit by recession, crowds at Sunderland have held up at a fraction over 40,000 and at least those who have been demanding new blood for the new season cannot complain. As Bruce acknowledges: "The big thing now is to make it all come together, bed them in and get them to play as a team."Reuse content