Bruce has Black Cats purring
First there was the question of Alan Wiley's fitness. Then there were the issues caused by an inflatable ball purchased from the Liverpool club shop. Sunderland's successes have an unfortunate habit of being obscured in unlikely fashion. Nevertheless, the last two matches have marked a seismic step forward from Steve Bruce's side.
Ahead after 90 minutes at Old Trafford, their eventual 2-2 draw remained hugely creditable and, but for the stupidity of the sent-off Kieran Richardson, could have been a victory. The slender margin of the 1-0 win over Liverpool could certainly have been greater, regardless of the bizarre circumstances of the sole goal.
Now Sunderland sit seventh, ahead of Liverpool. They are the interlopers in the upper reaches in the Premier League. It suggests that the amiable Steve Bruce's brand of revolution, featuring a high turnover of players in the summer, may enable him to accomplish what Roy Keane's more intimidating attempts at man-management could not and establish Sunderland in the top half of the table.
Despite a shared past, one former team-mate has spent much of his time on Wearside undoing the other's work. Six of Keane's signings have been sold and three more loaned out as an overgrown squad has been pruned intelligently. Quality, not quantity, is now the prevailing ethos at the Stadium of Light. The theme that less is more has been epitomised by a slimmed down Andy Reid, now producing arguably the best form of his career.
Keane's fearless persona contrasted with his team's timidity against their betters. The manager could not be cowed, but his players could. Sunderland took two points from 16 games against the Big Four under Keane and Ricky Sbragia in the previous two campaigns. Under Bruce, they managed four points within the space of two matches.
It is a reason why, rather than the Irishman's Black Cats, the two sides that provide a closer comparison with Bruce's team are his own Wigan and Peter Reid's Sunderland. Lee Cattermole is a common denominator between the Lancastrians and the Wearsiders. His high-energy approach, mirrored by the new captain Lorik Cana, is reminiscent of Cattermole's partnership with Wilson Palacios for the Latics. Wigan overpowered sides in midfield then, just as Sunderland did against Liverpool on Saturday. The loss of Cattermole for three months with a medial ligament injury should come as a relief to less energetic midfielders elsewhere who have spotted the Black Cats on the fixture list.
In attack, however, Sunderland supporters may be transported back a decade. With a combined total of 13 goals, Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent are shaping up to be one of the Premier League's most effective and prolific partnerships. With a combination of a gangly target man and a specialist scorer, they are Sunderland's modern equivalents of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips. The current chairman was more of a dependable target man than Jones, although the latter has the advantage of a turn of pace that Quinn lacked. The arch-predator Phillips, meanwhile, was a superior finisher to Bent, though the younger man's strike rate (eight in nine games) has similarities with Phillips' 30-goal campaign in 1999-2000 when he won the European Golden Boot.
Reid's side finished seventh in successive seasons. Even with the benefit of hindsight, that can still appear somewhat strange; with the classic alliance of a big man and a smaller sidekick in attack, theirs was an essentially rudimentary approach. While Nicky Summerbee provided an effective supply line from the right in 1999-2000 and Don Hutchison a steady stream of goals from that flank the following campaign, a glimpse at the supporting cast prompts questions about their exploits. Such luminaries as Paul Butler, Darren Williams, Chris Makin and Alex Rae all featured regularly; Danny Dichio, Darren Holloway and Paul Thirlwell had bit-part roles. Even those who enjoyed better careers elsewhere, such as Kevin Kilbane, Gavin McCann, Thomas Sorensen and Jody Craddock, were no more than steady Premier League performers.
In contrast, Bruce's side can provide glimpses of quality. On either flank, Reid and Steed Malbranque are skilful performers who have provided the ammunition for the forwards. Richardson, despite his more brainless moments, is similarly capable while the teenager Jordan Henderson has plenty of potential. A defence that has been breached 13 times in nine games has scope for improvement, but Michael Turner is already looking a solid acquisition while Paulo da Silva and John Mensah may reinforce, as Cana already has, Bruce's reputation as a fine importer of talent.
The manager has already said that Sunderland will be targeting the Carling Cup in a quest for silverware. It would be one way of surpassing Reid's achievements. Others are more difficult: with both Merseyside teams in Sunderland's slipstream, it would be no surprise if one or both accelerates past them. But even with a lower finish, this looks like the outstanding Sunderland side of the Premier League era.