Keane tries to avoid second season syndrome

They say the second season is always harder than the first, but if that's true, Sunderland fans are in for a pretty miserable time of it, the AFP reported.

Actually, the statistics suggest it isn't as common an ailment as it may seem: Reading last season were only the fifth side ever to be relegated from the Premier League in their second season after promotion.

But that doesn't mean that there is no reason to fear that other teams might work a side out or that players might fade once the novelty of the top division has worn off.

Last season there were the odd surprises - a 3-0 drubbing at Wigan, for instance, and a 1-0 win at Aston Villa - but essentially Sunderland won the games they expected to win, drew the games they expected to draw, and lost the games they expected to lose, and so stayed up.

Given the traumas of their previous two seasons in the top flight, which brought embarrassing relegations with a combined total of 34 points, that was good enough, but there is a demand for something more than survival this time round.

At the end of last season, Sunderland manager Roy Keane himself was unequivocal. "We need major changes - in the first team and everywhere," he said. "We need more quality."

Few would doubt that, or the observation he made that Sunderland, for all their fighting qualities, simply did not retain possession as well as they should.

The question then is why that quality was missing when Keane had spent the best part of 40 million pounds on players the previous year.

Few doubt Keane's motivational abilities or his tactical nous, but the one area in which he has faced regular criticism is his dealings in the transfer market.

Sunderland do have a vast squad, packed with players, particularly midfielders, who are little better than average.

Yet given the problems of luring signings not merely to the north-east but to a club with a reputation for yo-yoing between divisions, Keane's record is not perhaps so bad as has been made out.

At nine million pounds possibly Craig Gordon was a touch over-priced, but Sunderland were in desperate need of a top-class goalkeeper, and the Scotland international has proved himself just that.

Eyebrows were raised when Keane paid six million pounds for the Trinidad and Tobago forward Kenwyne Jones, but he led the line magnificently last season, contributing far more than his seven goals might suggest.

Kieran Richardson struggled with injury, but showed enough in flashes to suggest that if he can reach a level of consistency, 5.5 million pounds would look a fair price.

This season's signings, though, have not exactly set pulses racing.

Keane has at least broken his habit of dealing almost exclusively in former Chelsea or Manchester United players.

But Steed Malbranque, Teemu Tainio and Pascal Chimbonda from Tottenham and El-Hadji Diouf from Bolton, brought in for a total of just under 20 million pounds (38 million dollars) aren't exactly the glamorous names of which Sunderland fans were dreaming.

Nonetheless, Keane insists he is happy. "Things are starting to take shape," he said. "We have signed some exciting players and they will offer something different."

What Sunderland desperately need is a centre-back to replace Jonny Evans, who has returned to Manchester United after a second successful loan spell on Wearside, and another centre-forward.

Jones will be out until at least October with a knee ligament injury and he anyway was frequently left to shoulder too great an attacking burden last season.

If those two positions are filled, Sunderland could be looking at comfortable mid-table. If not, and with a difficult start to the season that could undermine morale, they may be left relying on there being worse teams in the division than they are.

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