Watching football fans watching the football
After two and a half years on Wearside, Steve Bruce’s tenure at Sunderland came to an end last week. Following a home defeat to Wigan nine days ago courtesy of Franco di Santo’s late goal, it’s fair to say his departure was somewhat inevitable.
A crescendo of boos echoed around the Stadium Of Light at full time, the natives were rightly displeased at their side's lackluster performance. The animosity towards Bruce was not an overnight creation, it had been brewing for some time. The calamitous fashion in which three points became one and then none was breaking point for the Sunderland fans.
Malcolm Robinson, Editor of Seventy3 Fanzine believes it was an unfortunate but necessary dismissal. “I did think that it was time to go for Mr Bruce," Robinson said. "Not only were his tactics and motivation not working, luck was also against him. Sometimes I think you have to hold your hands up and admit things were not meant to be.”
Those sentiments were echoed by former Sunderland and Manchester City winger Nicky Summerbee, who these days plies his trade as a pundit. “I do think it was right to get rid of him. I’m not knocking Bruce, but you’re looking at a season where everyone was excited before kicking a ball and it hasn’t worked out. It’s a bit doom and gloom there and something needs to happen. Sometimes when a new manager comes in it kick starts things. It’s not that Steve Bruce is a bad manager, they just needed a change.”
As well as grievances with his tactical approach, Bruce’s transfer policy had also come under scrutiny, despite a modest net spend. His inability to secure a natural left back since arriving in 2009 had been a major gripe with some fans, with his attempts to rectify the issue by shoehorning Phil Bardsley and at times Kieran Richardson into the position doing little to dampen the criticism, despite some solid performances from the latter.
NEWS: Sunderland sack manager Bruce
It should be said, however, that there were positives. A tenth place finish last season - the highlight of which was a 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge - was the Black Cats' highest in a decade, while the acquisition of players like Darren Bent, Lorik Cana and Asamoah Gyan proved Sunderland could now attract a better calibre of player than they had done under Roy Keane. Unfortunately, of the aforementioned names only Gyan remains with the club, and whether his current loan deal with Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates will be made permanent is still unclear.
Of more pressing concern though is how and why those players left. Albanian midfielder Cana cited a desire to be close to his family, only to move to Galatasary in Turkey before switching to Lazio this summer. Bent, despite being the focal point of the club's attack, had expressed a wish to relocate six months prior to his eventual January switch to Aston Villa, which leaves only Gyan. Bruce believed the striker had been influenced by those closest to him. After publicly stating he would stay at Sunderland, he departed for the middle east a day later.
Summerbee also believes Bruce has struggled since losing such key players. “He’s lost Gyan, he’s lost Bent, those are big players. To replace someone that scores 20 goals a season can be hard, players like that are worth their weight in gold.”
With three home wins in 2011, Bruce’s time was running out. Having started the season with a draw away to Liverpool, his first test came at home to Newcastle. With the 5-1 result of the previous season still etched in the memory, Bruce had sought revenge ever since. In what was a tighter affair than the Halloween fixture of the previous year, Newcastle still came out on top thanks to a Ryan Taylor freekick.
This time, however, rather than lament a poor performance, the fans vented frustration at Bruce’s selection. With five of his new additions on the bench, including £6 million midfielder Craig Gardner, his resistance to change and persistence with players like Lee Cattermole left many disappointed.
Preferring to let assistant Eric Black take training, Bruce’s approach could best be described as dated. A belief that motivation was the key, his mantra seems fitting to a man much older than Bruce’s fifty years.
Often warm and even quite humorous at press conferences, his post match interviews started to become littered with excuses. Disgruntled members of the club's support even set up a website to highlight how unwilling Bruce was to shoulder the responsibility.
The pressure only intensified when Bruce turned the spotlight onto the fans, citing their lofty expectations as being too grand for a club of Sunderland's size. It seemed a somewhat ironic claim considering he had proliferated the idea himself with talk of pushing for the top eight. One wonders if in hindsight he wished he had kept his thoughts on the matter to himself. With the fans chanting for him to leave and only two wins in thirteen games, it was clear his position had become untenable.
Defiant till the end, Bruce maintained he would not quit, leaving owner Ellis Short with little option but to take matters into his own hands, axing Bruce Wednesday evening and replacing him with Martin O'Neill by Saturday afternoon.
Quite where Bruce goes from here is unclear, his time at Sunderland has done little to enhance his reputation and the speed with which the fans at the Stadium of Light turned on him will do little to convince
In his program notes prior to the Wigan game, Bruce said he should be judged at the end of the season. In the wake of the result he was asked if he thought he would be granted that much time. With a deep intake of breathe and a look that suggested he knew it was unlikely he replied; “I certainly hope so.”
NEWS: Sunderland appoint O'Neill as manager
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