Salut! Sunderland’s 13 years, 13 SAFC managers: (3) Steve Bruce

Our former boss: another great portrait by Owen Lennox, Sunderland artist and friend of Salut! Sunderland

Monsieur Salut writes: the other day, Wrinkly Pete – Peter Lynn – wrote, in a message our wretched technical issues prevent from being published as a comment, that Pete Sixsmith‘s outstanding appreciation of Martin Harvey reminded him ‘how I will miss this website and articles like this’.

It is typical of Sixer’s commitment to Salut! Sunderland throughout its 13 years of life that even as he breathed a sigh of relief that we should now be winding down, he was devising one last series: the 13 managers who have accompanied this site on its sometimes bumpy ride. It’s been bumpy for them, too, as Steve Bruce would attest.

Bruce was hugely divisive figure. The highly successful author Terry Deary (Horrible Histories, anyone?) told us: ‘I gave up my season ticket when Steve Bruce was appointed manager. I will renew it as soon as he leaves’. I would sometimes point out that he was the only manager since Peter Reid – and remains the only manager – to deliver a top 10 Premier League finish. But he had faults and forfeited a lot of respect with post-dismissal remarks about our club and its fans.

Here is how Pete remembers him …

Read moreSalut! Sunderland’s 13 years, 13 SAFC managers: (3) Steve Bruce

Aston Villa ‘Who are You?’: Bruce, Grabban, Birmingham rivalry and SAFC’s ‘necessary’ relegation

Tom: ‘Like Villa, I’m under Chinese ownership’;

Tom Jolliffe* cannot see beyond an away win at the Stadium of Light tomorrow. At least he applies a neat sense of humour, and traces of sympathy, to his asnwers about our plight and his club Aston Villa’s buoyant current state and longer-term prospects (which should not, in his view, include much room for Lewis Grabban beyond the Championship). And however controversial this will be, Monsieur Salut thinks he’s closer to being right than wrong in his assessment of Steve Bruce …

Read moreAston Villa ‘Who are You?’: Bruce, Grabban, Birmingham rivalry and SAFC’s ‘necessary’ relegation

Crowing About: why Coleman’s words are cutting the mustard

Jake: ‘click my image to join the Salut! Sunderland Facebook group’

For his second contribution to the pages of Salut! Sunderland,  Martin Crow compares and contrasts – favourably – the Chris Coleman way with words, when talking publicly about Sunderland AFC, with the mix of gibberish, gallows humour, boorishness, beyond-the-pale philosophy and heavy gloom that has gone before …

Read moreCrowing About: why Coleman’s words are cutting the mustard

If Millwall’s visit isn’t worrying enough, Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa are up next

An ominous reunion with our former boss looms. Portrait of Steve Bruce by Owen Lennox, an acclaimed Sunderland artist

Sunderland’s shameful home record will become officially the worst in English football history on Saturday if Millwall are not beaten at the Stadium of Light. Nineteen games – 18 in the Premier League and Championship and one in the FA Cup – have passed since a scrappy 1-0 defeat of Watford in December last year. That is a winless home run shared by Dagenham and Redbridge, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. Are we really about to make the record our own? Stand by for a bleak assessment of our club’s present crisis …

Perhaps the best that can be said
about the visit to Aston Villa next Tuesday is that at least Sunderland won’t be at home. The match comes four days after the managerless club must beat Millwall to avoid setting that wholly unwanted record for failing to win at home.

Read moreIf Millwall’s visit isn’t worrying enough, Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa are up next

End of season reviews 2016-17 (1): ‘hire and fire’ is the Lars word

Lars Knutsen touching base

STOP PRESS – Lars submitted this piece well before the season end, before the Arsenal game in fact. It has been sitting in the draft folder for a week and would you know it – within minutes of it going live Moyes resigns. MD

Malcolm Dawson, deputy editor, writes: at the end of a season that will linger long in the memory as one we would wish to forget, Salut! Sunderland approached both its regular and occasional contributors for their thoughts. Don’t be fooled by the name – Lars Knutsen is Mackem through and through and even though his work took him away from his Boldon roots to Cambridge via Scandinavia and the USA. he retains his love of SAFC. Working as he did in the pharmaceutical sector  you’d think he might have driven his troops into researching a cure for the compulsion to follow a club that has been a long term underachiever but no – like the rest of us he is stuck with his lot.

You can read more of Lars’s contributions here

Monsieur Salut adds: a series of painful steroid injections to a dodgy knee reminded me today it was time to launch this series of end-of-season reviews. With thanks to Malcolm for preparing Lars’s contribution for publication, let me make it clear the series is open to all Salut! Sunderland readers who have time and inclination to offer their own reviews of a season. Just let us know – leave a message below or use the contact link you’ll find somewhere on the home page

Read moreEnd of season reviews 2016-17 (1): ‘hire and fire’ is the Lars word

Hull City Who are You?: ‘who could blame Bruce for walking out?’

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley at the Wembley playoff final

Monsieur Salut writes: At 15 Mark Bradley* is the youngest ‘Who are You?’ interviewee in the history of Salut! Sunderland. Although we take pride in the quality of this feature, it would not be hard to identify a few examples that showed considerably less maturity and vision than is evident from Mark’s replies.

Like us, he is under no illusion about the significance of Saturday’s game to both clubs and sets of supporters. Concentrating on SAFC, the season does not end if we lose; we are not safe if we win. But the need for three points is pressing, a second successive win that would make climbing out of danger seem less daunting a challenge. We should be grateful to have another struggling side as opponents after finally breaking our duck but, as we so often say, this is Sunderland and we shall see. We thank Mark for his willingness to take part in the discussion …

Read moreHull City Who are You?: ‘who could blame Bruce for walking out?’

Nil Desperandum: Why relegation will not lead me to despair

Malcolm Dawson is of pre-Premiership pre-Sky vintage. He remembers a time when teams like Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Derby County could actually win the league. When teams like Northampton Town and Carlisle United could reach the top tier of English football and for a time actually threaten to go top of the league. Of course he wants the team to do well and be as successful as possible but as a fan is he wrong to contend that there should be more to life as a Sunderland fan than Premiership survival?

Jake: 'do you reckon it'll produce a brighter wash next season?' ..'
Jake: ‘do you reckon it’ll produce a brighter wash next season?’
Driving over Wearmouth Bridge after the debacle that was Poyet’s last game in charge, I glanced at one of the escutcheons bearing the coat of arms and heraldic motto of the City of Sunderland. The words “Nil desperandum” roughly translated as “don’t despair” leapt out at me. Had I been on foot I may well have been more focussed on the stickers placed there by the local branch of The Samaritans but I wasn’t. I was in the car and the journey home had been made much easier by the early departure of half the crowd. I should have been depressed but I wasn’t.

I tuned the radio to “Jazz Record Requests” and planned my evening meal – a comforting pot of home made chicken and chorizo cassoulet made with cannellini beans, cherry tomatoes, Italian herbs, served with a crusty loaf. The world seemed OK. You see I was disappointed but not downhearted by the Aston Villa defeat and an increased probability of relegation

I admit I had gone along hoping for the three points that would lift us up the table but in all honesty what I expected was another abject performance and what I had expected was for us to lose. I expected to lose because that’s what this current Sunderland team unerringly does when faced with a crucial game. Thankfully I missed QPR being exiled in deepest West Lancashire, but my brother had gone along for free and complained that “even that was too much to pay”. The story of too many home games over the past few seasons against sides we should be beating comfortably, has been one of continual disappointment and I wasn’t falling into that trap again. Hull City, West Ham, West Brom, and QPR, together with the majority of games at the SOL last season, just reinforced my expectation that we would get nothing from Villa.

We actually started quite brightly, just as we had against Hull City, then capitulated just as we had against Hull City. Whilst those around me got increasingly animated I sat with a wry smile as the next episode of the SAFC soap opera unfolded. This was the Sunderland we have come to know and still somehow love, in the same way that Dot Cotton loved her son Nick. We keep coming back for more in the same way that Gail Tilsley (Potter, Platt, Hillman, McIntyre, Rodwell) is repeatedly attracted to homicidal psychopaths, career criminals and men with dark secrets. And she still loves her son Nick. Not to mention David!

So Gus has gone. No real surprise there but should we lay the blame solely at his door? Who should carry the can for years of abject failure?

When I was about 7 or 8 I was given a book by one of my older cousins from Fence Houses. That book was Len Shackleton’s autobiography “Clown Prince of Soccer” – a publication which recent comments leads me to believe never graced the bookshelves of Murton Library, but which I remember well. Especially the Chapter headed “The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football” and the footnote which read “This page has been left blank in accordance with the author’s wishes.” Shack had a low opinion of the men (and it was exclusively men back in the 50s) who ran the clubs, but at least those types tended to be local businessmen with some understanding of the people who supported the club, what their club meant to them and accepted the premise that the aim of a football club was to win trophies.

From Len Shackleton's autobiography (with David Jack), Clown Prince of Soccer?
From Len Shackleton’s autobiography (with David Jack), Clown Prince of Soccer?

Updated the chapter would be re-titled “The Average Owner’s Knowledge of Football” but the content would remain the same. But nowadays the hyper rich owners of clubs in and around the Premier League are more concerned with balance sheets than trophy cabinets. Ellis Short may be pumping money into the club but he has achieved absolutely nothing. As fans we want more than a healthy balance sheet – at least I do. I want to see a side that plays entertaining football and is at least competitive every time it steps out onto the field.

To be honest I’m not bothered about Premier League status. I am rapidly approaching my 61st birthday (am I really?) and in my lifetime all we have won is the F.A. Cup and a few promotions. We still harp on about 73 because it’s the only significant trophy that the club has lifted in living memory unless you happen to be an octogenarian, nonagenarian or had a telegram from the Queen. If you have yet to reach your mid-forties you have seen us win nowt except a few promotions. Last season’s trip to Wembley will live long in the memories of those of us who were there because it is such a rare event. I’d rather we had beaten Hull in the F.A. Cup last season and gone back to North London for the final than enjoy “The Great Escape.” Enjoy that I did – but look where it has got us. Another year of miserable underachievement, the tearing of hair and the gnashing of teeth. This season I wish we had beaten Bradford, then Reading and had another crack at Cup success even at the expense of relegation which still looks probable unless Dick can turn things around in 9 games.

I’ve actually enjoyed our time in the second division or The Championship as it is confusingly named – the winners of the Championship being only the 21st best team in the country – more than our Premiership campaigns. I’ll qualify that by saying the two 7th place finish seasons were an exception but generally we see more positive attacking football at the lower level, the pre-match build up is much more optimistic and the whole day is much more fun. Add to that you get to go to other places and mix with fans of clubs who are realistic about their clubs’ prospects and it makes for a good day out. We played at Gillingham a few years back and the banter in the pub before and after the game was so good that a group of us decided to go back. Sure enough half a dozen of us turned up in our Sunderland shirts one Saturday when they were playing Walsall. We had a great day and as it was their last home game of the season (we had Arsenal next day) they were having a party, ordered in pizza and asked us to join in. Unfortunately we had a train to catch so had to give it a miss. Invariably my best memories of following SAFC have been at so called smaller clubs. Lincoln City, Grimsby. Bury, Stockport etc. A few pints, good craic and decent footy.

Malcolm Dawson with SuperKev back in the days when the football was worth watching.
Malcolm Dawson with SuperKev back in the days when the football was worth watching.

I don’t really get this obsession with preferring the avoidance of relegation to actually watching competitive games that we have a chance of winning. The reality is we can’t aspire to be anything other than a mid-table side at best unless we get a takeover of the Abramovitch variety. I know survival guarantees a big television payout and relegation results in a huge loss of revenue but that’s not my problem. The lure of the lucre is what drives the business model of the owners of our clubs and any on field success is viewed solely in terms of European qualification and more TV money.

Roy Keane did well when we were in danger of dropping into League 1 (the old 3rd Division) but it appears he was frustrated by the club’s inability to push on in the Premier League. Not the most patient of men I believe the situation at the club gradually wore the Irishman down.

Steve Bruce did OK for a while even though his tactical thinking seemed limited but was unable to take us forward. Was that purely down to his ability as a manager or were his hands tied to an extent by the policy of the Board? Martin O’Neill we all hailed as a savour when he was appointed but like Bruce he apparently ran out of ideas. How much was his ambition supported by those in charge of finances? Di Canio’s appointment was naïve but in his brief and tempestuous time he hinted that the culture of the club needed an overhaul.

Poyet too pointed the finger at off the field issues and eventually, like Keane appeared to lose the plot and resign himself to leaving the club. Towards the end a huge disquiet about team selection and tactics lost him the support of the crowd and there were at least three games I went to where the “Gustavo Poyet” song, which had been one of the South Stand’s favourites was never heard, but since Niall Quinn was relieved of the Chairmanship and latterly Kevin Ball’s reduced role in the club I look at Short, Margaret Byrne and the rest of the Board and ask myself if it is them rather than the players and coaching staff who are the root cause of the problem.

But going back to my main point, my feeling is that should we escape relegation again we will have another season of disappointment and frustration looming. The reality is we will not be competing with Arsenal or Spurs, never mind Chelsea, Man City and Manchester United. When the height of our ambition is to finish 12th or thereabouts and if achieving that comes at the expense of entertaining football I question whether it is worth it. Go down though and I can see some great days out and some enjoyable matches. Should we go down and Sixer’s seat is filled by someone other than he, it could easily be myself.

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Jake flags the new feature allowing you to have your say on topic or off
Jake flags the new feature allowing you to have your say on topic or off

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Hull City ‘Who are You?’: brilliant Brucey, enigmatic Allam, dance icon Elmo

Jake : 'we have ways of making them talk'
Jake : ‘we have ways of making them talk’

Here’s the place for some interesting thoughts on Hull City’s Sunderland connections. Brad Rial*, a Tiger with a platform (he’s a part-time trainee at the Hull Daily Mail), has a lot of time for Steve Bruce and a trio of ex-SAFC players at his club. He’s more than a little concerned about the deteriorating relationship between owner Assem Allam and the fans … oh, and he thinks we’ll lose at the KC but stay up …

Read moreHull City ‘Who are You?’: brilliant Brucey, enigmatic Allam, dance icon Elmo

Sixer’s Hull City Soapbox: Bruce and Marriner bring Boxing Day blues

Malcolm Dawson writes…..I called into the Wetherspoons in Houghton to give mine and M Salut’s regards to Hull City fans Raich and Gary, excellent contributors to the Who Are You series but there was no sign – so I nipped into my brother’s for some Cheesy Puffs and a chicken drumstick prior to this one. I can’t say I was too optimistic. Anyone who has followed Sunderland for more than a season knows that they can surprise you in the most unlikely of situations and will invariably disappoint if you go full of expectation. Like so many games before, here was a fixture we were odds on to win against a side rapidly becoming odds on for the drop. Another banana skin loomed and with Andre Marriner in charge we were unlikely to get any marginal decisions. I don’t normally moan about referees, adopting M Salut’s stance that generally they do a tricky job to the best of their ability, but this particular official has a track record when in charge of our games and yesterday just added more grist to the mill. Having said that we were crap second half. Peter Sixsmith concurs.



How to spoil a good Christmas:

Take a Sunderland side who seem to think that a derby day win guarantees undying affection and a continued presence in the Premier League, add a twist of a former Sunderland manager who has forgotten how to win against anybody but the red and whites and throw in a soupcon of Andre Marriner, possibly Europe’s most inadequate referee, and you have the ideal recipe for an absolute disaster, a game that made cold sprouts and a box set of Jim Davidson DVD’s seem infinitely preferable.

The day had started well. I was a guest of Pete Horan and Emma Niven (the younger of his two stunning daughters) in the Montgomery Suite. The food was excellent, the company equally so. We shared a table with a lovely family from Peterlee (there’s a good story here which, hopefully, will appear later), chatted with Chris Makin who is currently “working” with Nicky Summerbee in Qatar, commentating on Premier League games and bumped into John Hawley who, tongue in cheek, predicted a 3-1 win for City. Oh how we laughed.

Pete's dining companions
Pete’s dining companions

The smiles grew wider as Hull contrived to defend like the Over 50’s team in the annual pub challenge and Adam Johnson rolled the ball into the net in the first minute. We sat back in the plush West Stand seats and anticipated an opportunity to reduce the goal difference deficit.
For fifteen minutes we looked good; trickery from Alvarez, excellent link play from Fletcher, some crisp passing from Gomez and Larsson. When the Swede put a good opportunity wide, there was little to worry about as surely another chance would be along in a minute or two.

What we didn’t realise in our post prandial comfort zone was that The Tigers were gradually gaining a foothold in the game. Led by the excellent Stephen Quinn and the busy Sone Aluko (a player who had passed underneath my radar), their passing was crisper than ours, their movement was more incisive and when Gaston Ramirez levelled with a goal that seemed to hit a divot and embarrassed The Giant Pantilimon, it was no more than they deserved.

We had a flurry of activity before the half time whistle went which gave Andre Marriner the opportunity to show us why he should be barred from Wearside until the 23rd Century. I thought that Alex Bruce clearly handled a cross from Adam Johnson, as did most of the Sunderland crowd and players. Bruce had his hands up and was always liable to touch it, either intentionally or not, therefore it had to be a penalty.
I was less convinced by the other claim against Quinn where I thought that the ball hit the hand but we could have gone in 2-1 up when McGregor made a good save from Vergini’s effort. It would have been undeserved but I would have taken it.

Jake: 'you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind' Pete: not on yesterday's performance
Jake: ‘you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind’ – Pete: “not on yesterday’s performance!”

The second half was an absolute disaster as Hull proceeded to roll us over for the fourth time in a row. Chester’s firm header came about because he was completely unmarked and Jelavic finished off the twitching corpse in the last minute as we pushed up field in a desperate attempt to salvage a point – one that we did not deserve.

What is it about this club? As Pete said after the game “You could put the Real Madrid team in Sunderland shirts and they would perform as Sunderland always do.” How right he is. There we were, with the warm glow of a Derby win behind us, a game where it was accepted that we played the better football. Another 40,000+ crowd, bedecked in new Christmas jumpers, scarfs and hats, full of brandy and bonhomie and we play like this.

There were some players who were seen through in this debacle. John O’Shea has had a good season thus far, but take Wes Brown out of the team and he is not as effective. Put him alongside Coates and he is even less so. The Uruguayan, who grew into the game at Newcastle, grew out of this one pretty quickly and his passing was woeful. Vergini was little better. Cattermole played far too deep, Larsson appeared to believe all the good things written about him this season and Alvarez and Gomez are lightweight, ineffective and out of their depth. Jack Rodwell must be looking like Billy Bunter in training if he can’t get into this team.

And then we come to the substitutions. Off came the two Z men and on came Giaccherini and Altidore. The former was making his return after three months out so that may be the reason for his wretchedly disappointing performance. A couple more like this and he may well be resuming his career in Serie A. As for Altidore, well, I really cannot envisage him ever scoring for Sunderland. Danny Graham offers more and so would Mikael Mandron. The American has had ample opportunities and has shown that he has nothing to offer at this level. His movement was poor, he rarely wins headers and his presence on the field can only inspire giggles amongst the opposition defenders. His sole contribution to SAFC will be to be mentioned in the same breath as Andy Kerr, Tom Ritchie, Brett Angell and Jon Stead as complete and utter flops.

So, a real disappointment, made all the more so when the other results are looked at. A win or even a draw would have pushed us up the league and created a breathing space as we go into a four game run where points will be hard to come by.
But this is Sunderland, a club where the catering is excellent, the set-up is outstanding and the product on the field is consistently disappointing.

Will it ever change?

What do you think?


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Wembley and Safe (6): Sunderland fans – long term lovers of pain

Jake is sleeping soundly
Jake is sleeping soundly

Malcolm Dawson writes…..Fans of the radio show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” will know that one of the long term favourite rounds, inevitably at the end of the programme, is the “Late arrivals at the …….ball.” Panellists are given a theme and come up with terrible puns based on it. For example if the topic was “Late arrivals at the Publicans’ ball” someone, probably Tim Brooke Taylor would say “Will you welcome please, Mr and Mrs Bitter-Shandy and their son…Arfur Bitter-Shandy. Graeme Garden’s running gag was always along the lines of “All the way from Sweden, Mr and Mrs Orders at the bar please, aven’t you all got homes to go to and their son Lars Orders at the bar etc., which is a very long winded way of welcoming, all the way from Sweden, regular contributor Lars Knutsen with his take on the season just gone.

We are football fans. We understand the pain and suffering of following that Sunderland football club can entail, experiencing the highs that are very high and the lows that are almost indescribably low. I was at most of the games for the amazing high 1973 FA Cup run, but also in attendance at Vicarage Road in September 1982 when we lost 8-0 at Watford in the top League, then Division 1.

If fans are defined by the people whose mood is affected by the fortunes of their club, we have had ups and downs to a bipolar level this season. As a BBC Radio 5Live commentator put it: “There are the makings of a good side in there somewhere”…and happily the players found that chemistry in a dynamic fashion at the right time to get the team out of trouble.

Fortunately we will indeed all remember the end of the season in sharpest focus. As Monsieur Salut will confirm, I had completely given up hope after the defeats at Spurs and at home to Everton. I sent in a piece of writing in which I was resigned to the drop, with trips to Millwall, Charlton and Blackpool (Yeovil and Doncaster were relegated!) on the horizon for next season, wondering whether Gus Poyet would keep his job. Fortunately, our editor was too busy with preparations ahead of the Chelsea game…I revised my contribution, and the team ensured that the rest is history.

I heard from a fellow fan from my home town of Boldon that the senior players, presumably galvanised by O’Shea and Cattermole, got together after the defeat at Spurs, and said, we will give this a real go, we are better than this. I credit Wes Brown for being psychologically robust enough after that tragic own goal against Everton, to put in cracking performances from then on. The same must be said of Mannone after his desperate efforts to keep the ball out of the net in City’s late equaliser at the Etihad. Even the commentator said that our keeper would not sleep that night.

We need to remember though that this season has served some truly horrible performances, many of those in the 11 home league defeats, as well as those terrific highs. Notably that truly dominant win at Newcastle, after which I was sure we would pull away from the bottom and move into mid-table obscurity, a pretty good outcome after the desperate start we had under Di Canio.

Lars Knutsen touching base
Lars Knutsen touching base

I know that Swansea were party-poopers on the final day, but miracle was almost too mild a word for what had happened at Sunderland over the preceding 4 weeks. A totally amazing series of results, which show what stringing a few good performances together will do for confidence. The side will look quite different next season, with Borini likely to return to Liverpool, Jack Colback possibly going to Newcastle and the club perhaps not renewing Phil Bardsley’s or Seb Larsson’s contracts.

Fans cannot blame the players for keeping their options open while we looked certainties for relegation. We signed Larsson, Gardner, Vaughan and Fletcher from relegated clubs, and to be honest, it must have taken them time to get over the losing mentality. I reckon though that the backbone of the team will be unchanged, with Connor Wickham staking his claim. The late season revival was based on having Wickham to put the goals away, but also on a solid defence, notably at Chelsea and Man. United. The centre backs performed well, but they are getting older.

Work needs to be done though in the close season to clear out underperforming players, who have been inconsistent and dropped below the levels of effort and professionalism demanded by fans of Sunderland Football Club. I would like us to keep Larson though, he may be scoring less but his deliveries into the box are excellent.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Poyet is the 4th best manager of the year, with Steve Bruce in 6th spot. I obviously hope and expect to see an improvement in that placing next year, if Poyet is allowed to rebuild the side and if we do as well teams that should be our peers, such as Everton and Southampton. We should definitely be finishing above teams like Stoke City.

In November 2013 I wrote in my column as a response to “Brucie’s” version of his time at Sunderland: “So we are happy to let Bruce manage a club in a Rugby League town, struggling to get over 22,000 for a home game, and to provide a home to our former players and have his deluded view of his time at the SSOL. I predict now that we will finish above Hull City Tigers or whatever they are called today”.

One prediction at least came true, we did finish above Hull City. But I am delighted that my late Spring expectation of relegation, shared by many, did not come true.

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This is the latest contribution to our Wembley and Safe series of end-of-season reviews. To see all postings in the series, click anywhere on this paragraph.