Say anything enough times and eventually it will be perceived as truth. That has always been the way of the world and politicians and propagandists have turned it into an art form. It is also especially true of football. The advent of the technological era mean these are heady days for football as coverage, images, and opinions are instantly beamed across the planet with effortless efficiency. By the time a controversial incident has been broadcast on Match of the Day, Twitter, message boards, and blogs have long since finished debating it.
One man who clearly believes that perception is everything in football and can be shaped with repetitive suggestion is Steve Bruce. It has actually reached the stage where you could probably look at any Bruce interview since the start of the season and genuinely not identify any distinguishing points that could indicate which game he is talking about.
'We played some very good football but didn't take our chances. We probably didn't get that little bit of luck that you sometimes need, but I maintain that we need time to gel as a team having brought in so many new players and I'm convinced that we'll get better in the winter. The expectation here doesn't help matters. You lose a couple of games in this region and suddenly you are engulfed in mass hysteria, but we have to learn to deal with it.'
The above quote I have entirely composed myself, but at least part of it could probably be accurately attributed to Bruce following any match this season and if I hadn't confessed I defy anyone to have been able to say without reasonable doubt that I hadn't lifted it from a newspaper.
Bruce has another longer-standing rhetoric that once again reared it's head this week – that every player needs to be a beast of a physical specimen to be considered for the Premier League. No matter how many times Bruce wants to repeat it, it will still be total nonsense. Yes, some brawn is certainly as asset in the Premier League, and every team needs some scattered about in some key positions. But it isn't a pre-requisite of success and as long as football is the game we play then it never will be either.
Since Connor Wickham has been at the club, his manager has publicly purred more over his physical stature than he has his obvious quality. This week, and with Wickham a fresh addition to the injury list, attention turned to another young striker – Ryan Noble. Following a clinical hat trick for the reserves, the press were keen to ask Bruce whether the home-grown youngster would get a chance against Fulham. 'He took his top off the other day and he was still like a little boy, bless him.', was the fairly patronising reply. Noble got 3 minutes on the pitch.
Ryan Noble may not be the second coming of Gary Rowell. For all we know he may be just the latest in a long line of Sunderland youngsters for which great things were predicted only to fail to live up to the expectation. The point is that he shouldn't be held back because he fails to meet some preconceptions of what a Premier League footballer should look like. Lest we forget that Kevin Phillips was rejected by the game at a similar age because he 'looked like a boy'. First exiled to a full-back position and then banished to non-league football to reconsider his options. He still looked like a boy when he made his England debut, and when he was awarded the European Golden Boot award too.
Even if we take the romantic 'fairy tale' aspect of a local lad banging in the goals for Sunderland out of it, there are perfectly legitimate football reasons to hand Noble a first team opportunity. I implore anyone who has the capability to log into SAFCTV and watch Nobles reserve hat trick. What you will see is a striker who possesses exactly what the first team squad has been lacking, especially without Wickham available. All three of Noble's goals were born of a desire to attack the space behind a defence with the singular thought in his mind of getting in a goalscoring position.
For all the result was a disappointment on Saturday, there was plenty that was good about Sunderland's play. As discussed in this week's Talking Tactics, the Black Cats were efficient with possession and moved the ball through midfield with some fluidity. The problem was that as soon as the ball was worked into a position to deliver a final pass or a telling cross, no one wanted to be on the end of it.
Nicklas Bendtner holds the ball up as well as any striker in the Premier League for my money, but he lacks the desire to get himself into advanced positions. It just isn't his game. Neither it is Sessegnon's. Both revel in the cut and thrust of the deeper role. As far as I am concerned, there is absolutely no excuses for failing to have a player in your team with the single purpose of occupying opposition centre halves and providing an option for a final pass and decisive pass. It is defeatist and frankly incompetent on the management's behalf to have neglected such a crucial phase of play. But that is the situation in which we found ourselves on Saturday.
Ryan Noble may not be a monolith, but he has certainly proven himself to be a natural goalscorer, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the second that Sessegnon or Bendtner received possession, a natural goalscorer would be on the move intent on creating an opportunity to split the defence. The second Elmohamady or Larsson received the ball out wide, a goalscorer would be single-mindedly plotting to get across defenders. Because that is the true essence of the goalscorer. They don't physically over-power their opposition, they out-think them.
No one knows if Noble is up to the required standard. But surely the time has come to find out. It isn't as if he can make us any more impotent in front of goal than we have shown of late. The 4-4-1-1 system wasn't working with the players available before Connor Wickham got injured, it didn't work on Saturday, and it isn't going to work now either.
Brian Clough once defined the art of football management as 'knowing what your team needs'. It is time that Bruce proved he is capable of that by turning to the one striker he has available to him that can be relied upon to provide an outlet for a final pass. No one cared when Darren Bent did nothing for 89 minutes but provided cutting edge, no one will care if Noble spends 89 minutes bouncing off defenders either if he does the same.