For almost as long as we can remember, the Sunderland supporters’ jury has been out on Steve Bruce.
Anyone with experience of the courts will be familiar with the intense atmosphere felt when the whispers start: “They’re coming back.”
Tonight/tomorrow – depending on when you read this – we do not have 12 men and women good and true “coming back” to pronounce the defendant Guilty or Not Guilty. But we do have 11 men plus subs whose performance may well decide the immediate future of a man who is not in any dock but, without shadow of doubt, finds himself under scrutiny.
The Sunderland team that takes the field against Stoke City is essentially Steve Bruce’s team. No more excuses. The fact that he now has only one striker in the entire squad with proper Premier experience, and that he is only on loan, is something he has to live with, whether or not one or more of the departures of Jones, Bent and Gyan occurred against his will.
If we beat Stoke City, we go 11th – unless Fulham beat Manchester City by a margin of at least two goals and we win by only one. If we lose, there is a mathematical possibility that we go bottom depending on the result from Craven Cottage. We would certainly be no higher, in such dismal circumstances, that the second bottom place we occupy tonight.
One of those scenarios would be reasonably consistent with the way we all thought the season might go. The other is, or was, unthinkable.
I want Craig Gardner to be proved right, for the Lads to show that all the doom and gloom about a start reading P4 W0 D2 L2 F2 A4 Pts2, and humiliatingly out of the Carling, is frankly nonsensical.
But as one who has refused to clamber prematurely aboard the Bruce Out bandwagon, I know what will be the consequence from the point of view of supporters if we fail. My guess is that the view of Ellis Short would also harden, to the extent that defeat might equal dismissal by Monday or Tuesday, while a draw might leave the issue undecided until Monday week at Carrow Road.
Would I be saying this if I thought anything I said would pile extra pressure on the players of the club I love? Of course not. Salut! Sunderland is almost certainly unseen, especially on matchday, by anyone who matters at SAFC. And question marks over Steve Bruce’s managership hardly originated here.
Undying support, then, for the cause. And nervous thoughts for 3pm Sunday.