WHEN Sunderland last travelled to Bolton in May, chairman Niall Quinn entered the visitors’ dressing room and made a pledge to the club’s players before kick-off.
With American billionaire Ellis Short having agreed to complete a full takeover of the Black Cats, Quinn promised that, provided relegation was avoided, the face of Sunderland Football Club was about to change.
Three months on, and it already appears as though the Irishman has been true to his word. Back at the Reebok Stadium on the opening weekend of a new Premier League season, Sunderland not only boasted a new owner, but also a new manager and a crop of new multi-million pound players.
As a result, it was possible to detect a new sense of ambition and resolve. We might only be one game in, but this already feels like a club that is going places. And provided the Wearsiders reproduce the application and artistry that earned a deserved success on Saturday, there will be no chance of those places including the likes of Doncaster, Peterborough and Plymouth next year, something that will represent tangible progress given last season’s narrow escape.
“I’ve got all the ingredients and tools to make this a really big football club,” said manager Steve Bruce, who watched Darren Bent’s fifthminute header secure only Sunderland’s second openingday success of the last six years. “This is only a start, but it’s a great one, and if we can continue in the same vein, we will be all right.
“Bolton have been in the Premier League for nine years now – I want to try and make sure that we manage to stay in the Premier League for nine years and progress. If we do that, it will gradually get easier year by year.
“I’ve worked for ten years to be in a position where I can go out and buy a £10m centreforward.
In that sense, I’m lucky to be managing a football club like this.”
Bent is that £10m centreforward, and in many ways the 25-year-old is the personification of the new dynamic Sunderland that is beginning to evolve under Short and Quinn.
An established England international, in the prime of his footballing career, lured to Wearside for a club-record fee that could eventually rise to £16m if he continues to perform to his potential.
Middlesbrough and Newcastle have had their moments as the North-East’s money bags – now, it is Sunderland’s turn. And for all that their regional rivals burned briefly only to fade, you get the feeling that the 5,500 fans who packed out the away end on Saturday would settle for a Carling Cup victory or a UEFA Cup final appearance to cement their current position as the North- East’s top dogs.
Either of those achievements remains a distant dream at the moment of course, but Saturday’s victory provided enough positive signs to fuel a justified sense of optimism about the forthcoming campaign.
It wasn’t so much a tale of two halves as an expose of the two halves of Sunderland’s character, with the visitors completely outplaying a limited Bolton side before the interval, before gritting their teeth and digging in as the hosts rallied in the second half.
Buoyed by Bent’s dream opener – the striker opened his Sunderland account with a deft back-post header from Steed Malbranque’s left-wing cross – the Black Cats spent the rest of the opening period showcasing a slick, attractive attacking game that repeatedly tore the Bolton defence to shreds.
With Malbranque and Kieran Richardson probing intelligently from the flanks, and Kenwyne Jones winning a succession of aerial challenges to serve up a number of chances for Bent, the visitors should have been out of the sight by the break.
That they weren’t was down to two good saves from Jussi Jaaskelainen – the goalkeeper parried Richardson’s shot after the midfielder broke clear and saved well from Bent’s angled shot – and some profligate heading from Jones.
“We should have been out of sight in the first half and that was the only real disappointment,” said Bruce, who is hoping to sign Lyon defender John Mensah on a season-long loan in the next 24 hours. “I can’t remember ever coming to a Premier League game and having five or six good first-half chances away from home. The shame was that we couldn’t score a second one because that would have made us very comfortable.”
As a result, Bolton were able to rally and, after Marton Fulop produced the first of two fine saves to keep out Gary Cahill’s close-range header on the stroke of halftime, Sunderland’s players spent the second half proving they boast a steely core to go with their first-half silk.
With the Trotters throwing more and more men forward after the break, summer signings Lorik Cana and Lee Cattermole came into their own at the heart of midfield.
Cana threw himself into a host of challenges, and if the Albanian can hold his own against Kevin Davies, it is hard to imagine too many players getting the better of a physical battle against him.
Cattermole caught the eye throughout, breaking down a succession of Bolton attacks before instigating Sunderland’s attacking play with a series of simple yet effective passes. The Stocktonborn midfielder only took part in his first Sunderland training session on Thursday.
Two days later, and he was pulling his side’s strings with all the authority of a longterm leader.
“I thought Lee was terrific,”
said Bruce. “He set us on our way and that’s why I paid the money for him. Everyone knows what I think about him – I brought him from Middlesbrough and I’m delighted I’ve been able to bring him here.
“You can see why I’ve paid the money for him that I have done. He epitomises everything I like in a footballer. He’s competitive, he puts his foot in, he never gives up, he drives the team forward and he’s decent on the ball because he’s a good footballer. He had a great debut and I’m pleased for him.”
Yet for all the positives in Sunderland’s performance, there could still have been a sting in the tail. Three minutes of stoppage time had elapsed when the Black Cats defence failed to clear Sam Ricketts’ long throw, but Fulop produced an excellent reflex save to keep out Sean Davis’ low shot.
Back in May, Fulop also made an injury-time save to earn Sunderland a clean sheet. His last-gasp heroics were a constant between the two matches, but from a Black Cats perspective, in the intervening period almost everything else has changed.
Goals: 0-1: Bent (5mins, back-post header from Malbranque’s leftwing cross)
Bookings: Muamba (65mins, foul), Davis (67, foul), Campbell (85, foul)
Referee: Andre Marriner (Birmingham) - kept his cards in his pocket until late in the day and generally refereed well 6
Bolton . S’land
Shots on 4 6
Shots off 7 .10
Corners 3 7
Fouls 16 13
Offsides 0 .2
BOLTON WANDERERS (4-4-2):
Jaaskelainen 6, Ricketts 6, Knight 5, Cahill 5, Robinson 5, McCann 5 (Lee 68mins 6), Muamba 4, Davis 4, TAYLOR 6, K Elmander 4 (Ward 83mins), Davies 5. Subs (not used): Al Habsi, Cohen, O’Brien, M Davies, Samuel.
7 Fulop: Made an excellent save at the end of each half to earn a clean sheet
6 Bardsley: A typically solid display from the full-back up against the lively Taylor
7 Ferdinand: Handled Bolton’s physical threat well and avoided any lapses of concentration
7 Collins: Won more than his fair share of headers against Davies and rarely appeared ruffled
6 McCartney: Defended effectively and combined well with Richardson in the first half
7 Malbranque: Set up Bent’s goal and made plenty of telling passes before an injury forced him off
7 Cana: Didn’t shirk a challenge and grew in influence as the game wore on
8 CATTERMOLE: Tackled ferociously throughout, but also displayed real ability with the ball at his feet
6 Richardson: His movement was too good for Bolton before the break, but he faded in the second half
7 Jones: Won a succession of headers in the first half, but couldn’t direct some difficult chances on target
7 Bent: Opened his Sunderland account with a clinical finish, and caused problems throughout
Subs: Henderson (for Malbranque, 46mins): Didn’t look out of place at this level, even if the odd thing failed to come off 6 Campbell (for Richardson, 76mins): (not used): Gordon, Nosworthy, Leadbitter, Edwards, Healy
MAN OF THE MATCH
LEE Cattermole – the Stocktonborn star could hardly have enjoyed a better debut. He is a much better player than when he was at Middlesbrough, and is starting to look like a complete midfielder.