But, as Sunderland manager Steve Bruce prepares to meet his former club Wigan, his side are in freefall in the Barclays Premier League after just one win in their last 14 matches. COLIN YOUNG looks at what has gone wrong.
Pointing the finger: Sunderland manager Steve Bruce knows there are many factors to blame for his club's recent slide
BRUCE'S BACK TROUBLE With his Geordie roots and previous links to the Newcastle job, Steve Bruce was a surprise choice to everyone but Niall Quinn.
The Sunderland chairman, whose office overlooks the Bob Stokoe statue erected outside the Stadium of Light as a monument to their FA Cup winning boss, was convinced he had picked another manager who, like Northumberland-born Stokoe, would transcend the traditional rivalry between the two teams.
More than £30million was spent almost immediately on record signing Darren Bent, Lorik Cana, Lee Cattermole, Fraizer Campbell, Michael Turner, Paulo Da Silva and John Mensah. Some have been very good, or were until the turn of the year. Some have been very average and disappointing.
An excellent league start then followed, with the wins against Liverpool and Arsenal and an impressive draw at Old Trafford, when they could have won.
But there's the rub. Bruce has a tendency to start well in his jobs - seven wins out of 16 at Sheffield United, 14 out of 23 at Huddersfield, three out of the first four at the beginning of his six-year stretch with Birmingham - and then things can fizzle out. His man-management skills are being severely tested in a difficult spell for a team which has been hit by injuries. Bruce said: 'If I bring Alan Hutton in (against Wigan), it will be the 15th back four in 24 games.'
Sunderland are now bereft of confidence and ideas and will have to get back on track with the remaining home games against Wigan, Fulham, Bolton, Manchester City, Birmingham, Spurs, Burnley and Manchester United.
THE ROY KEANE HANGOVERBruce inherited a pretty average squad from his former United team-mate - too many players not good enough for the top half of the top flight, not consistent enough and not able to cope with the demands of a hungry North East audience.
One of the mysteries of Keane's transfer policy is why one of the great hard men and most demanding on-field motivators of the modern game was so obsessed with players who do not fit the Keane profile and cannot seem to handle the big stage.
He knew what he was taking on when he signed Kieran Richardson. He was one of the players he was clearly referring to in the explosive interview with MUTV which was the beginning of the end for him at Old Trafford. And he still paid £6m for him. Steed Malbranque was not mentally and physically strong enough to last games at Spurs, so why would he be any different at Sunderland?
The list of wasted signings is frightening - Teemu Tainio, David Healy, Anton Ferdinand, El-Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda and Michael Chopra. The list goes on. Keane spent more than £80m.
Missing in action: Striker Kenwyne Jones has also been unsettled by talk of a move to Liverpool
DISAPPEARING KENWYNE Any Sunderland supporter will tell you that Kenwyne Jones's performances were in decline long before Liverpool came looking. The malaise started about a year ago in fact - just after he had signed a new deal. Twelve months ago, the great Wearside mystery was why the big, powerful, enigmatic Trinidadian could not play alongside Djibril Cisse. Now it is Darren Bent. Why can't he play with consistency? He has the power and the strength, but he goes missing too often. He should be a weapon - and enough clubs have been interested in signing him - but does he have the heart for the battle ahead? Bruce says 'the loan thing has gone away' but added: 'It has taken some getting through to him.'
HOORAY FOR BENT Where would they be without Darren Bent's goals? But he did not expect a relegation battle when he came to the club. He has been there before with Charlton. Without Andy Reid's invention, there are not enough goals or creativity from midfield. Nobody can question the impact Cana and Cattermole made to a soft midfield, but club captain Cana and injury-hit Cattermole, who has played just 13 games, are too similar. Where is the quality? Just ask the poor souls watching their team squandering possession on Monday night against Stoke.
TRAVEL SICKNESSHOW THE TIDE TURNED When Sunderland beat Arsenal 1-0 on November 21 with a goal from Darren Bent, Steve Bruce's side were eighth in the Premier League, two points offfourth place. They have not won since, the goals have dried up and they now sit in 13th spot, just three points outside the drop zone, their latest disappointment coming in a 0-0 draw at home to Stokeon Monday. P W D L F A Pts Win%On Nov 21: 13 6 2 5 21 19 20 46Since then: 10 0 4 6 9 21 4 0
This new generation of Sunderland supporters almost doubles the attendances which struggled to fill Roker Park in its final season. It might have looked empty to TV audiences on Monday, but the gate was still more than 35,000, the fourth highest of the weekend games.
Sunderland must be doing something right at home because the majority of their points come on Wearside. On their travels they are dreadful and their away form - one win in 12 - is one of the most urgent matters Bruce has to address.
When they get behind their team they can be among the best supporters in the country. When they get jittery, as they are at the moment, they can be very difficult to please. And even Bruce admitted: 'There is no hiding from the fact we have had a dismal run.'
TIME TO PUT IT RIGHTNiall Quinn and Steve Bruce are following the Aston Villa model and they have a three-to-five-year plan to establish Sunderland as a top 10 side at least. There will be no panic in the boardroom or among Bruce and his coaching staff. With the support of Quinn and owner Ellis Short, Bruce will be given the time and funds to transform the club, although American businessman Short will be looking for signs of improvement, such as a top 10 finish, before he is likely to spend again. Quinn is convinced he hired a manager who fits Sunderland perfectly: a proper football man like Peter Reid and Mick McCarthy. Only he is in a position to see his manager is properly supported this time and stays for the duration.
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