Amazingly, Steve Bruce selecting a negative team and delivering yet another defeat was not the most predictable thing he did this week. No, even more predictable than the turgid display of defensive striker-less football that Sunderland produced at the Emirates, was that we'd be watching it with yet more criticism from our manager still ringing in our ears.
Apparently, Steve Bruce chose not to speak to journalists after the game on Sunday. According to him, journalists are sinister puppet-masters, gleefully creating and perpetuating wholly unjustified 'mass hysteria'. Well, they are when the focus is on him following another complete and utter tactical embarrassment, anyway. Strange, then, that it seems just about impossible these days for a Sunderland fan to pick up a newspaper without seeing their hysterical, and frankly obsessed, manager using the same journalists to explain to the footballing world just how rubbish we are as supporters and how much of a detriment we are to the club we love.
When I agreed to lend a weekly opinion to Roker Report, I never thought that months later it would have descended into a regular defence of my desire to have pride and belief in my football club. Because, for all Bruce's claims about there being a “huge, big expectation here that you would expect from a Champions League side”, that they provide a team to satisfy that modest criteria is the only expectation I have ever had of Sunderland AFC. It is also what, through his football, his words, and his general defeatism, Bruce has singularly taken from me over the course of the last nine months or so.
His latest assertion, that fans have an obsession with Newcastle United and have an inferiority complex so severe that our neighbours provide the measuring stick by which we judge our club, is probably the most fundamentally insulting of the lot. Meanwhile, his claim of “we're Sunderland and let's not try to get above our station here” is easily the most condescending and dispiriting.
But despite every one of his ludicrous and insulting claims being worse than the last, it just gets harder and harder to get angry about them. He seems to think that in the future, we'll all be sat there with our grandchildren perched on our knee and with a romantic tear in our eye as we regale them with the magnificent underdog story of when our well-financed team of millionaire international footballers nicked a 10th place finish on the final day of the season. Not going to happen, is it. He even tries to re-write history and tell us that kind of finish “has not been possible” for Sunderland in the past, despite just about every teenage fan and older knowing better times for our club. If Bruce is anywhere near as impressed with scraping this club into the top ten as he seems, then someone definitely does need to have a serious rethink of their ambitions, but it isn't the fans. It was an improvement, granted, but absolutely nothing to write home about.
Every time Bruce opens his mouth I feel more and more apathetic and distanced from the club. For the vast majority of us, Sunderland AFC has never been about winning. It isn't something we either expect or demand. Yes, we are dreamers, and even if we like a moan now and again, the fact that we continue to show up in the kind of numbers we do shows we are some of the game's great optimists. We have boundless blind faith, passion, and hope. That isn't a failing. It is the very lifeblood of the club. It is what makes this club great.
So naturally, when a key figure at the club repeatedly bemoans the ideals with which we, the fans, identify our club, and all whilst receiving stoic backing from above when embarking on what is starting to resemble a crusade, division lines are drawn and strengthened. Whether intended or not, fans are being asked to pick a side, and backing Bruce becomes an exercise in rejecting the essence of the club itself. Is it any wonder that crowds dwindle and apathy begins to reign?
Sadly, Bruce's constant snipes at the fans have taken things a long way past actual football until it is now difficult to envisage the kind of results he would have to deliver to win over his detractors. Losing football matches I can, begrudgingly, accept. Being embroiled towards the bottom of the table too. It's all nothing new to us. Newcastle doing better than us is certainly nothing new either. Just business as usual, unfortunately. It never stopped me loving and backing this club before and it won't now, either. But what I will never be able to accept is weekly sermons from someone who has become a serial loser chastising me for passionate support and daring to dream for better than nicking a top half finish.
The result of all this is that supporting Sunderland has become a laborious and utterly exhausting ordeal of late. Match days are chores, Match of The Day depressing, and a tarantula with an eye the size of a meatball making a nest in my boxer shorts probably couldn't fill me with any more dread than the prospect of Bruce's weekly press conferences do. The wall of silence and blanket denial that emanates from the club these days also makes it difficult to predict when, or even if, things might change. One thing is for sure, though. Loving your football club shouldn't be this hard.