THE MAKE-UP of Owen Coyle’s Bolton side would have a very different complexion if Steve Bruce had persisted in his pursuit of several Trotters players.
During Bruce’s tenure as Sunderland boss, David Wheater, Chris Eagles and Darren Pratley have all bleeped on the radar, while David Ngog would have moved to Wearside as part of the Jordan Henderson deal, if Liverpool had lowered their financial demands.
The pessimists will lament that one of the above is bound to further Bruce’s misery, as will Darren Bent in Saturday week’s visit of Aston Villa.
But rather than the focus on the ones that got away, now is the time for those who did sign on at the Stadium of Light during the summer to stem the tide of discontent mounting against Bruce and his side.
Half of the starting XI at Bolton tomorrow are expected to be summer signings and what a baptism of fire it has been to the new boys.
A derby defeat and a meagre six points from the opening eight games have quashed the enthusiasm which was rampant during the summer.
The merits of giving signings time to gel remains an admirable sentiment and continues to hold true.
But the fresh faces desperately need to help Sunderland register a pair of positive results over the next two games if this situation is not to reach Code Red.
The Bolton and Villa encounters takes Sunderland’s tally of games played to 10 – the first sensible barometer of a side’s progress and prospects for the campaign.
If Sunderland are not averaging a point a game by that point of the season and languishing in the bottom three, it’s a deep concern for all involved.
If they can take four points from the next two, then it provides a respectable platform for what looks an inviting programme of fixtures during November and December.
Crucially, the dressing room remains firmly behind Bruce despite the chuntering on the terraces and they must offer a tangible boost against a Bolton side gifted a second win of the campaign at Wigan last weekend.
All three Bolton goals stemmed from horrifyingly cheap giveaways from the Latics and shouldn’t mask the troubles Coyle has suffered since a false dawn with a 4-0 victory at QPR on the opening day.
Admittedly, Bolton have been on the receiving end from the fixture computer, but 22 goals conceded and four out of four home defeats does not make pleasant reading for a side that have joined Sunderland in experiencing a torrid 2011.
Bruce was at the DW Stadium last weekend to watch the defensive horror show from his former club.
Yet the influential contribution of wideman Eagles did not go unnoticed by Bruce, who faces a dilemma over which of his full-backs is best equipped to deal with the former Burnley man’s trickery.
The consistency of Phil Bardsley is likely to prevail, but Richardson’s added pace forces Bruce into a tough decision, given the way he silenced Theo Walcott at Arsenal last weekend.
Defensively, Sunderland must ensure they avoid the gift-wrapped donation of a head start, as they have managed to do in their last two games.
But crucially, Bruce’s side must strive to be the ones to open the scoring and deliver a hammer blow to the fragile confidence of their fellow strugglers.
The Black Cats have taken the lead just once this season and they ended up winning that one convincingly against Stoke City after the self-belief flooded into the side following Titus Bramble’s early strike.
Bruce knows he needs to open every possible avenue to such a scenario, leading to the likely inclusion of Connor Wickham for the first time in Sunderland’s XI.
Fellow rookie recruit Ji Dong-won has arguably shown more from the bench than Wickham, yet the England U21 striker may well begin to justify that £8million price tag by being handed the boost of a starting spot.
Using Wickham alongside the returning Nicklas Bendtner is likely to mean Stephane Sessegnon moving out wide at the expense of Ahmed Elmohamady, while Bruce must pick two of three from Jack Colback, David Vaughan and Lee Cattermole.
But handing Wickham his opportunity is a big call from Bruce in a big game for him. It’s a chance of the arm that could well pay off.
Verdict: Away win