And lo’ it came to pass that Darren Bent, the man who in the space of 18 months had not only kept Steve Bruce’s Sunderland side in the Premier League but helped them push on to 6th in the table, did leave the bright lights of Wearside for the glitz and glamour of Aston Villa. For £24million.
Some say it’s for his career, some say it’s for money, a better chance at an England call or even the chance to finally play alongside Emile Heskey… all of these arguments have, shall we say, slight holes in them.
Just a thought- right?- but one theory I haven’t heard yet, perhaps because I came up with it and haven’t told anyone, is that it was the Tyne and Wear derby itself that persuaded him to seek pastures new. Forget the vandalism, pitch invasion and cack-handedness of the local plod, I’d be looking closer at the fact that his team-mates collectively bottled it in a big game. Again.
This may all well sound very hollow coming from a Newcastle fan but honestly, I’d like see a North-East team getting their passports out for next season, any North-East team. Sunderland currently sit 6th in the table and look good value to be there after 38 games. However, as we’ve seen time and again, when teams attempt to scale new heights, the acid test is in the big games.
Now, whilst only managing a solitary point and a goal difference of -4 against newly-promoted Newcastle isn’t going to make or break their season, it does raise a few alarm bells as to how they cope with the big occasions. Make no mistake these were massive, massive games for Sunderland and on both at home, and at St James’ Park, the entire team neither looked prepared or particularly up for it.
Last Sunday the Stadium of Light saw its biggest crowd of the season by over 5,000 and what can only be described as a feverish atmosphere greeted the players on their way out of the tunnel. Yet, to what I’m sure was absolute despair on the part of the fans, it was the men in black and white who showed their teeth and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
If they want to finish in a European spot this season then sooner or later they’re going to come up against one of their rivals for that position. Be it a better side wounded and resigned to missing out on the Champions League or another hungry squad who’ve smelled blood, hit a good vein of form and started ascending the table. Those proverbial “six-pointers” are just around the corner.
And frankly, if Steve Bruce is incapable of motivating his side for one of Europe’s most hotly contested derby games, then he hasn’t got a prayer of coaxing a big performance out of them for those.
Bent has a remarkable scoring record at Sunderland but perhaps he had a look around and thought to himself that when push eventually came to shove, this team just wasn’t going anywhere. Cup finals wouldn’t be won with a 94th minute deflection from Asamoah Gyan’s knee…
In all honesty though, I’d have to disagree with him. They’ve got a number of players with exciting futures ahead of them and one of the last chairmen in the league who’s actually willing to throw some money around.
Even if they didn’t though, are Aston Villa really in better condition? Two seasons ago they bottled their opportunity to break into the top 4 when, lo and behold, they couldn’t find the performances in the really big games. It’s a sad indictment of the modern game that a player who so regularly spoke (and tweeted) of his love for the region would go chasing the money like that.
It leaves the club who essentially rescued his career at the goal-scoring mercy of a player they’re giving back to Man United at the end of the season and a man whose rapping and dancing career will surely see him hang up his boots in the next year or so.
Bent scored 32 Premier League goals in 58 appearances for Sunderland. He now needs replaced. Best of luck with that Mr Bruce.