23 April ~ At the end of January we were talking about football in my office. Sunderland had taken 37 points from 24 games and were seven points clear of seventh place. I joked rather smugly – you've got to take the opportunities where you can – that I was looking forward to our next win as it would take us to the 40-point mark, and Premier League safety. Nearly three months, and nine games, later we still haven't had that victory and are now five points off the bottom three. But I'm completely sick of the media and fans of other clubs telling me where it's all gone wrong, namely "the departure of Darren Bent". It's much more complicated than that.
I'm not being dishonest to save face – of course it's not ideal to sell your main striker in the January transfer window, and the sale of Bent certainly hasn't helped our season. But let's not forget that the player looked out of sorts since netting twice at Anfield in September and only scored three league goals in the 17 games he played in red and white after that. More importantly, there are several other reasons for Sunderland's collapse. You wouldn't know that from the media, however, who seem fixated on finding examples to fit the Bent theory, rather than basing arguments around real facts.
During this run Sunderland's defending has been incompetent and naive. The team seem psychologically incapable of protecting a lead – we've gone ahead against Chelsea, Stoke (twice), Spurs and West Brom (twice) but gone on to lose those games. Injuries to key players in all positions have also played a part and another long-term layoff for Fraizer Campbell coupled with Danny Welbeck's loss of confidence since returning from a cartilage operation have brutally highlighted a lack of cover up front. For most of this period Asamoah Gyan has been our only fit senior forward. While it's easy to say with hindsight that Bruce should have signed a short-term replacement for Bent in January the likes of Ricardo Fuller didn't seem too appealing at the time.
The transfer window moves that the club did make seemed exciting on paper but haven't worked out. Sulley Muntari was signed from Inter and had always looked impressive at Portsmouth, but at Sunderland he seems completely uninterested. From the dubious evidence of YouTube Stéphane Sessègnon looked a promising buy but he too hasn't yet settled in. If these midfield additions had been more successful Sunderland really could have been challenging for Europe – it would only have needed 12 points from nine games to reach the 49 points that Liverpool currently have in sixth place.
Bruce has come in for plenty of criticism for perceived tactical mistakes and an inability to get the players out of this slump. I don't yet want him sacked, mostly due to concerns over who would replace him, but his record of his teams failing in the second half of the season is deeply worrying – Sunderland went 14 consecutive games without a win last season and Bruce's time at both Birmingham and Wigan were also marked by similar collective crises of confidence.
After weeks of claiming that "this is a hugely important game", a win in today's match against Wigan yet again feels vital. It still feels more likely that Sunderland will do just enough to stumble over the line than get relegated, but we could all do with that happening sooner rather later. If it does eventually happen the main question is what now? For all of Ellis Short's investment in the club we have several important players only on loan, some positions where more cover is desperately needed and another summer of restructuring will be required. From a fan's point of view, however, the most depressing thing is that after half a season of dreaming we've been again reduced to the mundane and familiar feeling of nervously scrapping for points and, for the last three months, not getting them. Ed Upright