I was at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, as I have been for every one of Steve Bruce’s home games in charge, and I have to say that it felt like the end for the now departed Black Cats boss.
Admittedly, I was never his biggest fan, but Saturday night was the first time that I felt certain he was no longer the man for the job.
Sunderland, in a season where much was expected of them (although not quite as much as Bruce would have us believe), lie just two points from the drop zone, with few signs of sustained improvement. They have won just three home games out of 16 in 2011, at a ground that was once a fortress. And, crucially, Bruce lost what little trust the majority of fans had in him – even those that weren’t rejoicing in chants of “Bruce Out!” at full-time were fearing the worst for their side’s future.
From his appointment in June 2009, Bruce’s tenure has always been a troubled one. For starters, he is a Geordie, which isn’t that much of a problem (the most revered boss in Sunderland’s history, Bob Stokoe, came from north of the Tyne), but it doesn’t help when things aren’t going your way.
His first season was a relative success; 24-goal Darren Bent was a brilliant signing, and a 13th place finish was the Black Cats’ highest in nine years. But there were problems. A 14-game winless run from November to March undermined confidence, and Bruce struggled to conjure any kind of consistency from a squad beset by injuries and suspensions.
One of the characteristics of Bruce’s tenure was regular squad upheaval, well evidenced in his first full summer in charge. On the first day of pre-season training club captain Lorik Cana requested a transfer and was sold to Galatasaray. Kenwyne Jones, a favourite with many fans but certainly not with Bruce, was sold to Stoke for £8m – around half of what Spurs had offered for him 18 months earlier. Then Bent stunned the club’s hierarchy by asking for a move to Turkey himself, presumably for a sizeable pay packet, in a transaction that was kept out of the public eye. In-form Fraizer Campbell and David Meyler were put on the long-term injury list, though acquiring Asamoah Gyan for a club-record £13m was a triumph of sorts.
What followed was a bizarre season. Almost permanent fixtures in the top seven until February and 3-0 victors at Stamford Bridge, the Wearsiders went on yet another dismal run after Bent defected to Aston Villa in the winter transfer window – though how directly related these instances were is debatable. At times, Bruce contended with a dozen first-teamers out injured, and fans were looking nervously over their shoulders until a virtuoso performance from the soon-to-depart Jordan Henderson brought a vital win over Wigan in April. And, with a 3-0 win at relegated West Ham on the final day, Sunderland secured a top ten finish for only the third time in 55 years – a stat Bruce was always keen to trot out.
This summer was supposed to mark the final stage in Bruce’s restructuring of the club. And with John O’Shea and Wes Brown in to shore up the defence, David Vaughan, Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson in to provide goals from midfield, and Connor Wickham filling Henderson’s role of ‘wunderkind’, things were looking up. A promising draw at Anfield raised expectations, and with Newcastle coming to town for the first home game of the season, fans were optimistic.
But the Newcastle game, much like the other Tyne-Wear derbies Bruce has been involved in, typified what so many fans had become frustrated with. A lack of invention from both players and manager, and a perception that Sunderland couldn’t handle the pressure, left Bruce with a record of two dismal defeats and one ill-deserved draw from the game that means most in the North-East.
Since, Newcastle have gone from strength to strength and Sunderland have stuttered to eleven points from 13 games. Gyan incurred the wrath of fans and manager alike by switching Wearside for the sunnier and wealthier climes of Al-Ain. Bruce’s great ally Niall Quinn departed as chairman, to be replaced by owner Ellis Short, a man who most people have viewed as happier to take the tough decisions than the iconic Irishman. And fans have grown increasingly exasperated at an underperforming team and a boss who seemed to lack the ingenuity necessary to turn things around.
Yes, the “pressure” and “expectation” that Bruce has so often talked about does exist, but wouldn’t most teams expect to be able to win home games against the likes of West Brom, Fulham and Wigan? Tenth was a great finish for the club last season and I think most fans would have been more than happy with another top-half finish.
And yes, Bruce has been unfortunate in losing his strikers in bizarre situations that were often beyond his control. But he has had money to spend and the bottom line is that he hasn’t replaced the goals of Bent, Gyan and Welbeck, and also failed to sign the left-sided winger that he had craved for years.
Ultimately, whatever the circumstances, a manager is judged on results and Ellis Short has clearly decided that Sunderland’s performance this year has simply not been good enough. He has not panicked in sacking the former Manchester United captain – some fans have been arguing for his dismissal for well over a year – and I suspect he already has a preferred candidate in mind to take over.
A part of me had hoped that Bruce would stay and prove me wrong, as I have always believed he would once he had his own vision in place. But I, like most fans and now the Board, have come to the conclusion that this would not happen. He lost the fans’ support and from such a place there is rarely a way back.
Thank you for your hard work Steve, but it’s time for a change.