The challenge facing Sunderland

12 August 2011 08:00
WITH the new Premier League season due to start tomorrow, it's easy to compare the situation at Newcastle and Sunderland and conclude that, for one club, the pressure is off. Needless to say, that club isn't Newcastle.

Jose Enrique's impending departure to Liverpool is yet another setback in a summer that has already contained more than its fair share of crises.

Injuries, pitch invasions, rants on Twitter, and that's before we even get to the ongoing failure to replace Andy Carroll. For Newcastle, the new campaign is already shaping up to be a considerable challenge.

For Sunderland, on the other hand, the outlook appears bright. Steve Bruce took the £20m he received from the sale of Jordan Henderson and invested it in nine new players.

The general consensus is that he has spent his money wisely, with the likes of Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Craig Gardner and David Vaughan all tried and tested in the Premier League. Throw in the unproven, but undoubtedly promising, Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won, and you have some exciting additions to a side that was already good enough to finish in the top ten last season.

With relegation surely out of the question, the next nine months should be a laid-back and relaxed affair.

Or possibly not. For all that Sunderland are unlikely to implode in the way that Newcastle could, the new season could be every bit as traumatic on the banks of the Wear.

Why Because expectations have been raised. And while Sunderland supporters will be anticipating considerable progress between now and next May, it is hard to see how much further the Black Cats can go.

Let's be honest, they're never going to be a top-four club unless Ellis Short decides he can do without hundreds of millions of pounds, or a billionaire investor opts for a plaything in red and white.

Indeed, with Manchester City having turned the big four into a big five, and Tottenham operating on a financial level above most middle-ranking Premier League clubs, it's hard to see Sunderland becoming a top-six club in the imminent future either.

So what does that leave Seventh, eighth or ninth if they're going to live up to Steve Bruce's stated ambition of progressing in every season he is at the helm.

Three places available, and on paper at least, the likelihood that Aston Villa, Everton, Fulham and a big-spending Stoke will be competing for the same positions.

That does not leave much room for error, particularly when you factor in the potential for a lengthy bedding-in period as Sunderland's plethora of new signings attempt to gel.

A cup run would help of course, and having crashed out of both the Carling Cup and FA Cup at the third-round stage last season, Bruce is well aware that his side's knockout fortunes must improve.

A Wembley appearance would disguise a multiple of ills given Sunderland's lack of tangible success in recent years.

Similarly, doing the double over Newcastle would satisfy a parochial longing for regional supremacy that could potentially quench a yearning for more meaningful success.

But assuming there is to be no silverware - and the history books would suggest that is a pretty fair assumption - and no humiliation of the Magpies, we come back to the limited opportunity for progress in the league.

And even if Sunderland edge their way into eighth or ninth, would that really feel like a cause for celebration

The Black Cats achieved only their third top-ten finish in half-a-century last season, and there was still a two-month period where a significant proportion of the club's support was calling for Bruce's head.

In many ways, of course, this argument does not pertain only to Sunderland. As the Premier League continues to fragment along financial lines, so the majority of clubs find themselves banging their heads against a ceiling of ambition.

How long will supporters continue to exhibit pre-season excitement in August if the best they can hope for come May is an outside shot at a Europa League place

Stability is not to be sniffed at, and the vast majority of Sunderland fans will agree it is preferable to a battle against relegation.

In the long run, though, it is not particularly exciting. Bruce's biggest challenge over the next nine months is to prove otherwise.

Source: Northern_Echo