2011/12 Campaign (13th in Premier League)
A 10th place finish the season before last was an improvement for Sunderland: it marked the third successive season that The Black Cats had climbed up the Premier League end of season standings, having finished 13th in the 2009/10 campaign and 16th the season before.
With their Premier League status well and truly consolidated and going into their fifth consecutive season in the English top flight with a whole host of new signings, a top half finish was expected and when, thirteen games into the season, Sunderland were within two points of the relegation zone, former Sunderland defender Michael Gray told BBC Radio 5 Live that “everybody’s expectations were for the top 10 this season and we are nowhere near that.”
However, considering that Sunderland had lost Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan up front, as well as the continued injury-inflicted absence of Frazier Campbell, and furthermore, Jordan Henderson departing for Liverpool having had a barnstorming second season in the first team, contributing with three goals, five assists and appearing in 13 clean sheet results, it wasn’t surprising that Martin O’Neill’s appointment, as resurgent as it was, could only secure a 13th place finish.
Steve Bruce’s return, before he was fired, was simply not good enough: his win ratio had become pitiful, averaging at 30% over his entire Sunderland stint, but dropping severely to just half of that figure at 15% for the 2011/12 season, with just two wins in Sunderland’s first 13 games. Falling within two points of the relegation zone was enough for Ellis Short, club owner and chairman, to change the manager at The Stadium of Light and Steve Bruce was sacked having lost to the club he left Sunderland for just over two years ago: Wigan Athletic.
It was the synergy of the Northern Irish Martin O’Neill and his compatriot James McClean that instigated Sunderland’s turnaround in fortunes. For The Mackems, the goal between January and the end of the season should have been to maintain their then position of 8th. The previous year should have served as a lesson: at the end of January 2011 The Black Cats were 6th and slipped to 10th by the end of the season, following the departure of Darren Bent. Unfortunately, Martin O’Neill couldn’t capitalise on breaking in to the top ten and satisfy those beginning of the season expectations that looked dead before he entered the building.
On a transfer front Sunderland have thus far been almost mute: signing Carlos Cuellar, which reunites the Spaniard with the man who brought him to the Premier League – O’Neill, was like an infant giving up it’s dummy; tabling several bids for Wolves’ 25-year old Scottish striker was an attempt to utter their first words (of intent); approaching their first Premier League game with nothing but a free transfer to their name is perhaps indicative of imminent speech therapy being needed. Yet this infant still comes across as bashful with the ability to cause some serious damage to the bigger boys in the playground this year.
Their preseason results have done little to inspire Mackem fans, either: their first four preseason friendlies reaped just one victory and three goals – they all came in that once victory, too. The other three games ended in defeat. Although preseason results are meaningless, they have indicated areas that deserve attention and warrant improvement – the unsuccessful attempt to secure the services of Fletcher illustrates this. O’Neill remains unfazed, however: “I’ve been involved in preseasons where we have won every game and then struggled when the league started, and I’ve seen pre-seasons where we couldn’t win a match and then did well when the season got under way.”
Their two friendlies since that point, against Championship duo Derby and Leicester, read no better. Derby equalised in the last moments to cancel out James McClean’s opener and Leicester defeated O’Neill’s side 1-0. It leaves Sunderland with one win in their six preseason friendlies, and just four goals scored. Worryingly, 4 games were goalless from Sunderland’s point of view – that’s 66% of games Sunderland failed to score in. Last season they failed to score in just 34%. If the loss of Nicklas Bendtner as he returned to Arsenal after his loan wasn’t enough to encourage Sunderland to buy a striker, that stat is. They currently have Frazier Campbell, Connor Wickham and Dong-won Ji. They scored just five goals between them last season.
Despite failing to create any real fervour in their preseason campaign, Sunderland do have the ability to achieve a top ten finish. Martin O’Neill is undoubtedly a large factor in this, currently, rather bold looking statement. When at Aston Villa, the Northern Irish manager finished 11th in his first season in charge and then recorded three consecutive 6th place finishes. As the season past was already 13 games long when O’Neill took charge of Sunderland it is unfair to compare his debut season with The Mackems to that of Villa: however, if you extrapolate O’Neill’s win ratio (he won 9 games in 25) over the course of 38 games, he could have potentially bettered an 11th place finish with Sunderland.
All this gives weight to the prediction of Sunderland having the potential to break into the top ten: or in other words, what Sunderland expected to achieve last season – with Steve Bruce, also. Any higher seems incredibly unlikely and a repeat of a top seven finish, like those O’Neill secured with Aston Villa, are some way off at current. The likes of Liverpool, Newcastle and Everton seem too strong for Sunderland to compete with over the course of a season and a 9th place finish seems an appropriate prediction for The Mackems.