Sunderland are in a desperate struggle but must keep manager Steve Bruce - Northern Exposure

12 April 2011 04:42

Tough times: Steve Bruce is under real pressure at the moment

Sunderland launched a Christmas advertisement campaign for their 10-game mini-season ticket package.

As far as I can remember, it did not include the slogan 'come and watch a Sunderland team bereft of confidence, struggling to score, defend and hit full match fitness in a nail-biting relegation battle against sides in much better form who have been fighting for their lives for months'.

Or alternatively, 'if we lose matches you can give the gaffer some stick and demand we sack him.'

They probably wouldn't have sold. That is, however, pretty much the reality at the Stadium of Light.

'We have a seven game season and the first one is a cup final.' So said Steve Bruce last week. But he didn't get a runners-up medal for losing Saturday's final against West Bromwich Albion, the opening game of the new season. Just fans calling for his head and a team in a whole lot of strife.

So now the Sunderland mini-season is down to six games. Time, patience and confidence is running out on Wearside.

I spent an afternoon with Bruce last week. It was four days after the Manchester City debacle, two before West Brom. And he was still spewing.

A win against West Brom, and everything would be 'hunkydory again'. Lose and suddenly he was facing an unexpected relegation battle, plus a few nerves, and a lot more stick.

Only defeats below them on Saturday prevented their league position looking much worse, but West Brom went above them. As for nerves, Sunderland are all over the place. Stick? Have a guess. They threw away the lead twice against West Brom, but were also outplayed by one of the sides, who three months ago, looked like a shoo-in to lose at the Stadium of Light.

It's eight games since Sunderland last won, and they have to play so many who are below them and fighting for their lives that it is difficult to see where the next one will come.

It starts with Bruce's return to Birmingham on Saturday. Just what he needed.

The most telling remark he made last week passed me by at the time. He kept repeating that all managers go through difficult, testing periods, and that it was 'his turn'. But he added: 'The knives are out and we can't hide away from them.'

Bruce has never been a universally popular appointment among Sunderland supporters. He's a self-confessed Newcastle fan, which was an immovable source of contention for many Mackems, despite Niall Quinn's insistence that it never did Bob Stokoe any harm.

His black and white roots aren't a problem when Sunderland are winning of course, but they soon rise to the surface in times of difficulty. And there are always plenty of those, for any manager at the Stadium of Light and before that Roker Park.

It's all starting to go wrong: Peter Odemwingie scores for West Brom against Sunderland last weekend

The reaction at full-time and since Saturday evening suggests there is the anti-Bruce bandwagon is gathering momentum at Sunderland. My phone never stopped. And if the texts weren't asking if Bruce had gone, they were demanding it!

Such calls will probably, and hopefully, be ignored by the board. They may have genuine concerns, but Bruce has their total support. Niall Quinn is not a knee-jerk chairman, but one who wants stability at his club.

Like Steve Gibson down the road at Middlesbrough he would prefer to give his unequivocal backing to his manager in all circumstances, particularly if he is convinced he is the man for the job. Even Roy Keane couldn't deny that. So Quinn and Steve Bruce are once again fighting to keep the fans on side.

The worst defeat at St James' Park in living memory did not help their cause among the divided. And neither has this dreadful run, which just happens to coincide with Darren Bent's departure.

They decided, rather than sign a direct replacement, to put their money and faith in Sulley Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon, who both started on the bench on Saturday. They have yet to experience a win in a Sunderland shirt.

The one win Sunderland have achieved since Bent left for Aston Villa was against Blackpool. It was the sort of game Sunderland were taking for granted earlier in the season, when Bruce's Sunderland side were playing very well.

Nightmare: David Silva scores during Manchester City's 5-0 win over Sunderland earlier this month

It is Wigan and Fulham next at the Stadium of Light. None of this really helps after Saturday's performance, or the City game before it. They have been severely hit by injuries, they have too many who have run out of steam and confidence, just when those returning from injury need all the help they can get.

They're in a bit of a mess. Quite simply, Steve Bruce needs to earn his money and prove Quinn's loyalty is well placed. And from this unexpected mire they take a breather in the summer, buy a top quality striker and build on the first part of the season.

Quinn said: 'Once we get through this, we'll look back to see what might have been done differently, how we might have improved things.

'And of course, in the summer, we'll evaluate things such as the catastrophic injury problems we've had to contend with, and look at our transfer policy collectively.

'Just like last season, we'll sit down with Steve, take stock, and work out together how we improve on this season and how we continue the building process to make us stronger and better in the following season.'

Nothing surprises in this region. In the last couple of years we've brought you Keane and Bruce, Southgate, Strachan and Mowbray and, take a deep breath (let me get this right), Allardyce, Keegan, Kinnear, Shearer, Hughton and Pardew (with a few caretaker Hughtons thrown in).

Happier days: Nedum Onuoha dribbles through the Chelsea defence to score in Sunderland's 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge in November

But Bruce going under any circumstances would make no sense. He has built on the foundations created by Quinn and Keane and put too many staff in place for dismantling the whole operation now to make any sense. They cannot go back to square one with a new manager.

Yes, they've had some dodgy results and performances, but they have played most of the top six since the turn of the year. They now look set for a fight against the drop - and the possibility of finishing below Newcastle. It's almost as daft as talk of Europe earlier this season.

We all got a bit carried away when Sunderland were on the fringe of the European places, but they did look very impressive at home and won rather well at Chelsea. It was the start of the reigning Barclays Premier League champions' demise.

But the press lads up here can still remember the glory days round the continent with Sir Bobby, and many memorable Champions League nights, plus Boro's UEFA Cup runs. Maybe it is Sunderland's turn. And Newcastle being back there would be perfect too, don't get me wrong. Anyone, someone, put the North East back on the map.

So we were clutching at straws for another season. And Sunderland get to put us all through the ringer at the wrong end of the table once again.

 John Mensah out of Sunderland side for at least three weeks with torn groin muscleBruce wants answers from Sunderland medical team over crippling injury list

 Explore more:People: Darren Bent, Steve Bruce, Roy Keane, Niall Quinn Places: Newcastle, Birmingham, Europe

Source: Daily_Mail