Our jaunt through the 2010-11 English Premier League season heads Northeast to the Stadium of Light and Sunderland, a club who just might earn my irrational, albeit it, meaningless support for the season.
Recognition by proximity
And a brand new face Just a smidgen of success pie
And a pinch of social grace
You can play with the big boys
Or you can tell them what to do
But sooner or later there's another one like you -- Bad Religion, "Leaders and Followers."
In all honesty, there's no reason for reexamining the disaster on multi-fronts that was ESPN and LeBron James' "The Decision" from early July. None. If decorum in professional sports ever bottomed out, that was the day.
In the wake of "The Decision" one of the big talking points from everyone to the world's No. 1 Tottenham supporter -- Bill Simmons -- to all-time NBA legend Michael Jordan was James' decision to slip from an alpha dog in Cleveland to a second banana to Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat. How dare James not "sack up" and be "The Man"?!?
Realistically, if James hadn't done the most disgusting, self-aggrandizing publicity stunt in sports history and simply issued a release, "I'm going to play for the Heat since it gives me the best chance to win championships," instead of the immortal, "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach,"(*) chances are, the furor and overall level of rancor wouldn't have been the same toward everyone involved, whether or not they chew their nails.
(*) Another cheap chance to link to the outstanding, "Press Hop 2."
Now, should soccer fans have been surprised by James' decision-making process? Not really.
This type of joining already strong clubs is old hat across Europe.
Look at James Milner possibly leaving Aston Villa for a bit role Manchester City. Better yet, is there a more obvious comparable than Cesc Fabregas -- the heartbeat of Arsenal -- making a long-rumored switch to Barcelona where he could ride the coattails of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, etc.?
The idea of a star/standout/A-list soccer player leaving a lesser team for a bigger one, even in the case of Top 10 Worldwide clubs like Arsenal to Barcelona is business as usual. Sure his introduction at the Bernabeu was spectacularly surreal, but Cristiano Ronaldo ditching Manchester United -- even after a boatload of trohpies -- for Real Madrid wasn't all that surprising.
Now, as per usual, you've read this much about a post alledely focusing on the 2010-11 Sunderland season without a single word on the Black Cats.
Okay, fair enough. Here are two: Darren Bent.
As anyone who played EPL Fantasy last season(*) knows that Bent was a revelation, chipping in with 24 goals at an affordable price. For a pure value-to-production standpoint, his transfer from Tottenham was probably the best of last year.
(*) Shameless plug, sign up for TOP EPL Fantasy. League code: 409759-102569.
Bent seems like a good enough dude. He didn't bitch or whine about being left off the 2010 England World Cup squad. Maybe I'm giving him too much credit since he appeared on the same panel of "experts" for a piece on Complex.com as I did pre-World Cup. Who knows?
All that's certain is that Bent is a proven, productive goal-scorer, even if all his tallies were good enough to push Sunderland to a 13th place finish and a disappointing -8 goal differential.
Here's maybe the better question vis-a-vis Bent and Sunderland, does any other club in the Premier League have as big a gap in quality between it's best player and it's second best player?
This argument might've been a moot point had manager Steve Bruce been able to figure out a way to keep John Mensah on-loan from Lyon another season. Then again, a report from my Lyon-fanatic Martin from Ligue1 Talk didn't quite paint Mensah as the "Rock of Gibraltar," instead telling me in an email, "Guy is mentally and physically weak, which means he doesn't want to give Lyon a second chance, and we have no business for a big club like us taking chances on a player with his psychological and physical profile."
Harsh, but Martin(*) knows Lyon (and French football in general) inside out.
(*) If you want solid French-based reports on the progress of Charlie Davies, follow him on Twitter.
As it stands, Bent stands out like a shining light compared to the rest of the squad, which isn't necessarily bad, just not quite on Bent's level.
Part of me wonders, why can't Bent help recruit some other talented players to Sunderland? The club seems to have gotten its act together under Bruce, and it's embarrassing 2005-06 debt-riddled relegation from a few years ago a thing of the past.
Sunderland might not be Rio or the French Riveria ... or South Beach, but it plays in the modern Stadium of Light and averaged 40,000 fans per game which is a nice total. The club has won both the League and FA Cup, though those last came in 1936 and 1973 respectively. Ever since Niall Quinn became chairman of the club things have pointed decidedly up, even if the Roy Keane era was a total flop.
You'd think other fringe England internationals would see what Bent did, given the reigns at Sunderland, and want to join him and get regular starting minutes instead of fighting on the fringes of some of the other top six clubs? Wouldn't players want to turn a team into winners instead of leaching onto the past glory and or standing on the shoulders of giants? Wouldn't a guy pushing to get noticed want to play, and play a key role at that instead of fighting just to make the matchday roster at a "big" team?
Right, this is 2010, not 1970. The mentality of the modern athlete has changed.
As it stands, beyond Bent -- who was sort of like a lottery ticket paying off 10-to-1 odds -- Bruce is left to make smaller moves, basically raiding London clubs for surplus parts like Steed Malbranque, Andy Reid, David Healy and Teemu Tainio or buying bargains from teams desperate to sell in the likes of Michael Turner or Lee Cattermole. Or snagging ex-Manchester United youngster Kieran Richardson with hopes of reviving his career.
Actually, it's hard to find fault in Bruce's modest transfer policy.
Look at how he grabbed Boudewijn Zenden off Marseille in Januray and got a lot of mileage off the 33-year-old Dutchman. On the other end, when he splashed out some cash for a talented English player -- Frazier Campbell -- the results haven't been quite as fruitful.
Bolt of lightning strike me down, but I'll actually go on record that signing Titus Bramble isn't the worst move in the history of mankind. Sure he'll make one or two high-profile blunders, but the guy is a proven Premier League defender. Does he have the upside that Mensah would have? Not really, but you could do a lot worse. It's just that Bramble has the stigma of being an easy joke and it's hard to shake that once you get that label.
It dawned on me, too, that Sunderland would be a perfect club for Michael Bradley to make a move to, if he's got his heart set on the Premier League. The infrastructure and off-the-field stuff at the club is sound. Barring an absolute no-show, the team shouldn't be relegated.
On the field, with Bruce letting Lorik Cana move to Galatasaray (see another move to Turkey), Bradley could slot straight away into the midfield and provide that box-to-box element for Sunderland. He wouldn't have to carry the team, instead could team up with Bent to provide a nice 1-2 punch. Sunderland is crying out for a complete midfielder in the center of the field. Is 20-year-old Jordan Henderson the answer?
Within a year or two, assuming he settles, Bradley could impart his hard-edged, tough mentality on Sunderland as a midfield fulcrum.
Hard to see any downside here for either Bradley or Sunderland. The only hitch is that Borussia Mönchengladbach likely is seeking a nice chunk of change for the young American and the price is probably too rich for Bruce, who likes to operate on the cheap. Perhaps, though, since the club is owned by Dallas business man Ellis Short maybe they'll splurge on a young 23-year-old Yank with potential.
Even without my theoretical Bradley transfer, Sunderland is a nice little appealing team. Of teams that finished out of the top eight from last season, it might have the biggest upside.
It's a shame that glory-hunters players would rather latch on with winners, instead of looking at Sunderland is an opportunity to grow. Granted, it's a hard sell and coaches in the Premier League -- or across most of Europe -- aren't exactly able sell potential like American collegiate football or basketball coaches. The ability to push potential and or the ability to "achieve something special" don't really out-weigh money or cool night clubs.
If somehow Sunderland were able to grab a player of the caliber of Bent to place either in the defense or midfield, the club really could make a push.
Then again, it's not like we're ever going to hear a player like Ronaldo announce to the world, "I'm gonna take my talents to Wearside."
Bottom line -- As I outlined above, the skeleton is in place for a pretty good team here, assuming Bent stays around the 20-goal mark. He certainly needs more help than the underwhelming Kenwyne Jones, who we've seen drift in-and-out of matches far too often. Maybe that player is Campbell or maybe Richardson and they live up to their United pedigree and gives Sunderland another talented player to match with Bent. One thing is certain for Bruce, if he wants to push the club up the table they have to figure on a better away record. Sunderland was brutal away from the Stadium of Light in 2009-10, going 2-4-13, with the only wins coming on the opening day at Bolton and later at Hull City. Oof.
Every year I write this here blog, I seem to adopt a team. I don't out-and-out root for them. It's shifted from Blackburn to Everton to Birmingham City to I think now Sunderland. I hate the term, but I really do believe Sunderland might be a sleeper in 2010-11.
In case you missed it:
* West Ham United
* Stoke City
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom