Sunderland report cards: (7) ‘Steve Bruce’s critics will eat their words’

This is exactly what the series needed, as full-blown an endorsement of Steve Bruce as it is possible to imagine. Not because Martin Robson*, an exile in Vancouver, is necessarily right – all Salut! Sunderland readers will have a view on that – but because there has inevitably been a lot of criticism, despite the healthy finale, and it is important to see, acknowledge and then be able to assess the case for the defence …

After four decades of unfaltering allegiance, I could be forgiven for the following analogy: supporting Sunderland is a little bit like volunteering to stick your head and arms into a medieval stock in the middle of a thriving thoroughfare, inviting public humiliation and the scorn of those who pass by.

It’s a thankless slog. A pride-swallowing siege. An up and down ride-along with far more troughs than peaks. And so it was this last season.

The question is this. Are we making progress in the playing department? Are we on the right path? Is Steve Bruce the man to guide us to better times? I believe we are, and he is, and here’s why.

If there was a league table for under-achievement, we would have won it more times than Stan Cummins ran between opposition players legs. Very rarely have we had a team to match the level and passion of our support. Quite frankly, we’ve seen a lot of dross over the years, and it’s been a painful, tediously predictable journey.

Apart from the much-mentioned two seasons under Peter Reid, our flirtations with the Premiership have been an absolute debacle. We simply have not been able to compete with the buying power of other clubs, and our wage structures have always been a hindrance to quality recruitment.

Hence, every time we played the likes of Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, it was an ugly, 10 men behind the ball, all-hands-to-the-pump, mad scramble.

The inevitability of the result was always palpable. Having to sit through 90 minutes of no-contest, relentless poundings, watching 11 second raters scuttling around like beheaded chickens was more than I could tolerate. We were beaten before we kicked a ball, and the managers’ tactics always seemed to mirror the players’ lack of self belief. Defend for your lives and try to get a point was the order of the day. Humbug!

However, now, more than ever before, I am sensing genuine hope for the future under our current regime.

We have the finances, and an owner who is willing to splash the cash on players. How many times could we have said that in the past? We have a popular, passionate, committed, determined and ambitious chairman, with inside knowledge to boot. His plans to bring the good times back to a richly deserving area are slowly but surely coming to fruition, and we long sufferers ought to be relieved, appreciative and supportive of that. I am astounded by the negativity, the impatience and petulance of some of the regular contributors to this site, who seem to have forgotten just how bad we had it, and how long we had it for.

This last season has been entirely different. Even though we still can’t seem to win comfortably, and most games went to the wire, the quality of football, the passing and movement, the level of skill was infinitely superior to anything I have ever seen at either of our stadiums.

Nobody can deny this. Even the most ardent complainers seem to acquiesce in the fact that we have seen some great football, and this assertion is not in dispute. For the very first time in my lifetime I watched the team that represents the club I adore outperform and get results from teams that previously would have been all but guaranteed six points from us. How awesome was that?

We were unlucky to end up with only a point against Man U at home. We were unlucky not to beat Liverpool away, and we were a masterclass when we beat Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge.

As I mentioned in one of my posts after the game, after the elation of Welbeck’s third goal, I had calmed down after doing my impression of a high powered human jackhammer. I looked out into the kitchen and my wife was standing aghast, open-mouthed, in shock. I said nonchalantly “what’s the matter”? Her reply, in her Canadian drawl was simple and concise – “Do you got epilepsy”?

The point is, not only was it great to get the result, my excessive celebrations were down partly to the relief that finally, after all of these years, we were a genuine challenge to the best of the best. We weren’t rolling over and waving a white flag in another gutless capitulation. We were taking the game to a top team away from home, believing we could win, and following through.

No team can go to the likes of Chelsea and get a result without that belief, and it is a belief that has to be instilled. Who instills it? Steve Bruce is who. I know I might be in the minority, but my submission is that Mr Bruce has all of the qualities to be potentially the best English manager of this generation. He has the ability to motivate players. He is renowned for his ability to wheel and deal, and his purchases so far have been, in the main, good or great ones. He has the right mentality, not only towards games and game preparation, but towards management in general. Essentially, he takes his knocks and conditions himself to come back stronger after a fall.

Has he made mistakes? Yes. He should have bought a recognised left back. His tactics and team selection haven’t always been correct.

Maybe after Darren Bent left, he should have bitten the bullet, and bought another striker, but the market was inflated, and nobody offering “value for money” was available. I don’t hold him accountable for that, or for Bent’s departure. His disappointment was patently obvious, but he knows you can’t get the best out of a player who doesn’t want to be there, so he had to cash in and let him go. That’s about all there is to it, so why hyperanalyse it?

The arguments about Steve Bruce will inevitably continue all throughout the close season. The inquest as to where it all went so badly wrong will gather speed in the coming months, but to me it’s as plain as day.

After the first half of the season, playing great football, picking up great results, sitting pretty in sixth, we were all ecstatic, and most of the Steve Bruce doubters were beginning to doubt themselves. There was talk of Bruce being favourite to be next the England coach, or succeeding Sir Alex at Man U.

But after Bent left, with Campbell injured and Welbeck’s dodgy hamstring, we were severely lacking up the pitch. Not having enough firepower hurt us badly. Then came the worst run of injuries since World War 2! Therein lie the two reasons for our gut-wrenching freefall.

Bruce had no fewer than 12 first team regulars injured. How can any team at this level avoid a bad run of results with so many key players missing? Yet we still managed three wins out of five at the end, and finished in a respectable 10th place in the table.

Surely he must be given credit for what must have been the most difficult spell in his career, blighted by injuries and bad luck. He’s had only two seasons, and he needs a third to settle in, and build on the nucleus of a strong Premiership squad. I, for one commend him for his efforts so far. His good decisions far outweigh the bad ones. He was extremely unfortunate this season. Next season he’s going to be making a few people eat their words, although not before he’s taken more stick than Lawrie McMenemy.

* You may think Martin has it spot-on, or you may consider his praise for Bruce to be misplaced. For M Salut, it was a piece worth waiting for while Martin juggled his promise to write something with the need to get to grips with a new job, and his off-duty life as singer (not, I think, the character shown below before you open the clip) in a band called Ten Souljers) …

6 thoughts on “Sunderland report cards: (7) ‘Steve Bruce’s critics will eat their words’”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Bruce has been so unfortunate with injuries. I reckon the centre halves being injured halfway through the season scuppered us as much as Bent leaving. I was at the Chelsea game and it was a joy to behold seeing us play real football against a top side. I hope Bruce stays a long time and that fans have a bit more patience than usual.

  2. Last time I looked, Martin’s piece was number 9 – update: number 4 – in the top 40 of best-read Sunderland items appearing anywhere on the net from where they collate.
    Each of the previous items has also achieved high ratings at newsnow and, from what I can see at Statcounter, in terms of hits generally.

    Thanks to all contributors, whether of main articles or to the lively discussions that have ensued. Pete Sixsmith wraps things up tomorrow morning though I may later post a digest of all eight for easy reference.

  3. Hi Martin
    You conclusion in my opinion is correct yet I can not agree with how you came to it. Bruce has brought a respectability to the club and we are a team that can not be taken lightly yet WBA and Wolve took maxinum points from us. We do on occasion play good football and pass the ball well yet at times are bullied and made to look weak, the away derby, Wolves at home and Stoke away were results we should do better in, an additional ten points would have seen us qualify for Europe yet I feel lack of passion was to blame for the poor results after January. As for wheeling and dealing in the transfer market Steve Bruce has not been brilliant at S’ land, we play every week with 4 or 5 expesive loanees. while purchases such as Riveros and Angeleri have played little and seem to be below par End of season report potential but could do better. Lets look forward to next season with a new forward and players who are tied to the club no loanees please their passion fades

  4. So heartening to read such positive comments on here – things have been far too negative recently.
    As to Bent, once he asked to go he had to be sold; if we’d waited until the summer he still would have gone and we wouldn’t have received that huge sum. Then there’s the matter of SB’s daughter – for that alone Bent had to go – how could they work together again?As frustrating as last season was, I’m very optimistic that next season will be (slightly) better and all we can ask is that there is improvement year on year.

  5. Thanks Martin – and I tend to agree with your sentiments. Had all of our defeats been spread across the season and interspersed with the wins (rather than condensed into a couple of months, making us wonder where the next point was coming from) perhaps things may not have looked so bad.
    I do think Bruce was unlucky with Bent – We had Gyan, Welbeck plus Campbell coming back – so you can see the ‘gamble’ looked reasonable before the injuries hit the forward line. Remember, Bent was not playing as well in the weeks leading to his departure. Losing our central defenders and Gordon hit any team where it hurts – right in the spine (I think it was Cloughie always went for a keeper, centre halves and striker as the key positions).
    Very often, it is the silly points we seem to throw away at the start of the season that come back to haunt us.
    Also, we have played some pretty good stuff in many of the games that clearly represent a philosophy at the club. However, continuing with our philosophy for as long as I can remember and before, this good football typically stops just outside the 18 yard box.
    Anyway, we finished above the Mags, so what more can we ask.

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