Union faced mediocre opposition for the majority of the July pre-season and it was only the last 3 games that provided a stern test of their attacking verve and defensive agility. Prior to the spate of pre-season friendlies, I wrote on July 10th, my chief concern, was Union's "lack of fire-power". I was made to look foolish - or so I thought - when they hammered home over 60 goals in their pre-season friendly matches.
At present, Union resemble the Sunderland team that Steve Bruce was in charge of last season. The similarities are many (and mounting) and I'm getting worried now - if Bruce had not been swiftly sacked by the forward thinking Ellis Short we would have been relegated. Is Bruce somehow exacting revenge on me for my constant barracking of the fat Geordie on Facebook? Union have taken only 1 point from a possible 15 thus far.
Not getting stuffed
Union are yet to be hammered this term unlike last year when they suffered a couple of heavy defeats. Union's defeats have been narrow - and thus avoidable. It was the same with Bruce's Sunderland.
In addition, when Sunderland have been relegated it has almost always gone to the wire. We were reliant on another side getting beat, when I was in the away end at Notts County, and we survived after a shocking 3-1 reverse. We took 17,000 away fans to Maine Road, and were relegated after an epic encounter which we lost 3-2. We lost 1-0 at Wimbledon and our striker missed a gilt-edged chance to level. It's still talked about. Coventry delayed the kick-off so they could play out a draw and relegate us - this also is still talked about (it was in the 70s!). So much so, that Jimmy Hill, who orchestrated the disgrace, was roundly jeered at Craven Cottage a couple of years ago. Let's hope I'm not at VFL Bochum on the last day of the season in mid-May chewing my fingernails!
Not knowing your best XI and formation
When sacked, one of Bruce's many excuses, was the squad needed time to gel. This was not helped by Bruce not knowing his best XI and formation. I'm guessing Union fans are seeing the link here. If you're not, Union manager, Uwe Neuhaus has fielded a number of different starting elevens this season and has also tinkered with the formation. Players are, in the main, creatures of habit. They like a system and they like to play it on a regular basis. Bruce was unclear tactically and relied on motivation alone it appears - which was also clearly failing as Martin O'Neill demonstrated. I'm certainly not putting forward any view here that Bruce and Neuhaus are similar. I'm merely pointing out the similarity of the problem both managers face(d) and where teams/managers can end up if this is not remedied quickly.
Another Bruce excuse was that the Sunderland squad was somehow injury jinxed. You could write a book with the copy that Bruce fed the local rag about Sunderland's injury problems last year. Again, I'm not painting a picture that Neuhaus is similar here. However, a couple of Union players made comments about the spate of injuries post the Berlin derby. I just hope that Union do not fall into the 'Bruce trap' and focus on the excuses/explanation rather than the solution. Football clubs have a squad for reason. Bruce had a soon-to-be International footballer sitting in the reserves. Give youth a chance and focus on the positives rather than getting your excuses in early is of paramount importance.
James McClean - from reserve player to international
The derby defeat
Union have suffered what Bruce’s Sunderland suffered last year. A narrow derby defeat. For Sunderland this sapped the fans' morale and the defeat arguably had a damaging effect on the atmosphere at the SOL. Newcastle inversely went on a good run and managed to finish in a position way beyond most sensible Geordies' (I know a couple) wildest dreams. A key difference with Union is that the fans always back the team. They were applauded off at the end of the derby defeat.
Lack of creativity
One of Sunderland's major failings, in pretty much every relegation season, has been a lack of creativity in midfield - although Bruce would laughably claim "we created enough chances to win two football games". This is one area that I see a glimmer of hope for Union. Chances are being created. It's just a case of getting confidence back and converting a few more chances. Easier said than done of course but surely Mattuschka will return to the side and be dictating play like the Tuschka of old and Nemec will be given a chance and start banging them in. This conclusion though reminds me of being a Sunderland fan. I'll leave you with the name of a fanzine that I used to read in my youth. 'It's the hope I can't stand'.