Later today, another Salut! Sunderland contributor will identify one glaring flaw in the Bruce Way (in fact it’s already up by accident so can stay!). One point in 24 undoubtedly leaves the club in crisis, one made all the more painful by memories of the false early-season promise. This site is open to other Sunderland supporters who wish to offer their considered views, as articles or in the Comments field. First, though, I wanted to get this off my chest …
By the sea in France. two hours or so after the final whistle at the Stadium of Light not so much put us out of our misery as plunged us into more, I played a minor part in pulling to safety a four-year-old girl who had fallen into the harbour.
When I say minor, I mean it. A younger, faster man was first to reach her and was able to lean over and grab her hand; I took the other.
It would take a hard man to draw any serious comparison between a child in danger of drowning and the game of football.
But since the incident ended happily, or at least without tragic outcome (happy being the wrong word for a child who was naturally shocked and distressed), it is difficult for the man who is also a Sunderland supporter not to make the metaphorical link: would I extend my hand to help Steve Bruce in his moment of need or have thousands of other more active fans – ie there to see our disgrace, when I was not – already made the decisive response?
Niall Quinn would struggle to make out a sound intellectual case for despising me on the grounds that I was not at the stadium on Saturday to share the anguish of seeing three points squandered so easily.
It is true that I made the usual frustrating trawl of the internet in search of a stream that would not suddenly switch to Bolton v West Ham, as one did, or stop and start like a car with fuel pump trouble. I then settled for listening to the match on BBC Radio Newcastle, which consistently provides excellent coverage from Nick Barnes and Gary Bennett. That’s a service I pay for, via the official SAFC site; what is more, I also paid for the seat I didn’t occupy in the East Stand, having retained a season ticket despite my distance from Wearside, and no, it’s (apparently) not tax-deductible.
So even if my view is less valuable than that of the long-suffering man, woman or child who passes through the turnstile – Pete Sixsmith is an obvious example but there were 40,000 or so others at the weekend – it is still the opinion of a committed fan.
I heard the jeers of the crowd as the second lead was not only cancelled out but turned into a deficit. I also heard Gary Bennett’s groans, punctuating Barnes’s commentary. When I then looked at my desktop screen for a delayed glimpse of the action, I could see precisely what had prompted the derision.
Yet no, I would not sack Steve Bruce today, or even after another defeat, which most of us probably now regard as likely, at Birmingham on Saturday.
This is less a vote of confidence than an acknowledgement that unless he really has lost the dressing room, a judgement I’m in no position to make, it is quite the wrong stage of the season for such a dramatic gesture. There is also an impulsive feeling that Bruce has, in large measure, got us into this mess so Bruce should get us out of it, but that is a weaker argument, and may overlook matters beyond his control (eg if Darren Bent’s untimely sale was against his will).
I simply cannot see it being possible to effect, in April, a change that will have the instant impact desired and turn a team playing without confidence or concentration into one bristling with self-belief and punch, unable to accept defeat. Such desperate motivational tricks have worked (Peter Reid narrowly saving us from another drop to the third tier comes to mind), but they are rare.
And against the drift of opinion, I am by no means sure that Martin O’Neill is the man to pull it off or even, necessarily, the logical next appointment. We berate some of Bruce’s tactical decisions, but Villa fans had quarrels with MON, too.
It may be that come the end of May, another look has to be taken at whatever situation we find ourselves in. Ellis Short will take that took for sure. It is possible, though unlikely, that we will have been relegated, in which case there would be no proper alternative to dismissal of the manager. If we’ve scraped survival, the case for keeping him would not be much stronger. But if, starting with this Saturday, Bruce has launched us on to a winning run to restore respectability and even a top 10 place, then he’d be fully entitled to another chance to put things right on a more lasting basis.
Not every reader of Salut! Sunderland climbed to the rooftops to cheer when Bruce was appointed. I was initially lukewarm but came round to admire what seemed his steadying influence and decent approach. Plenty now, of course, are calling for his head whatever they once thought, and that is entirely understandable. I shudder to think what has been going through the minds of Short and Quinn as they have watched our meek and incompetent recent displays.
But Bruce, as is well known, signed a contract extension in February. He wouldn’t be difficult to dislodge, but would certainly be expensive. If we go down, he’d probably he content to accept the disappointment of failure and move on; if we stayed up by the skin of our teeth, departure would not make him a pauper.
It would be wrong to suggest that leaves him in a no-lose position. Steve Bruce is beyond question a man of pride and professionalism. He wants to save our season just as much as we want him to do so. I just pray he has it in him to lift the players’ spirits, remind them of the pride they too should take in wearing the shirt and quickly gets the points needed to enable us to breathe more easily.
Was Chelsea away a never-to-be-equalled fluke? Were we just lucky to pick up the points we did earlier in the season? Is the true measure of our standard the way we played in both games against Newcastle and West Brom, or at Wolves and Everton, in two cup exits and at both Manchesters? It’s a frightening thought that we really are no better than that.
The notion has occurred more than once over the past few decades that underachievement, at least at the top level, is built into the Sunderland AFC psyche, that a sudden import of the Barcelona first team squad would actually make little difference once they pulled on the red and white striped shirts. But the other side of that coin would have Elmo, Ferdinand, Turner, Malbranque – you could exclude Mignolet and list almost the entire Saturday team, and a few on the bench – turning into worldbeaters the moment they joined another club; so maybe we could settle for Barca all the same.
I still believe an abrupt change now would be unlikely to produce a truly beneficial effect, unless mere avoidance of relegation – which would probably be achieved in any case – amounted to the peak of our ambitions. That is not to say the same thinking needs be applied in the close season. But the response to a little girl in difficulty in the water is not to panic her if the circumstances permit a calmer approach, and the time is not right – in my view at any rate – for a frenzied attempted fix at the Stadium of Light.