From The Durham Times: Time To Start Looking Forward

BIRMINGHAM ENGLAND - JANUARY 18: Darren Bent speaks to the media during a press conference to announce him signing for Aston Villa at Villa Park on January 18 2011 in Birmingham England. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

Having had both The Daily Star and Daily Mirror lend a few of my Captain's Blog words for their papers last week, this week I thought I'd might as well get myself intentionally this week by stepping forward for do our weekly Durham Times column. Dreadful media flusie, blatant egotist, just some sleep-deprived idiot with too much time on his hands, or a combination of all three - I'll let you decide that.

Anyway, can buy the copy of The Durham Times from your local newsagent should you be lucky enough to live in the relevent areas for about the same price as you get a penny-chew for these days - 30p. Failing that you can (sometimes) read it on their website every Friday, here - http://www.durhamtimes.co.uk/sport/rokerreport

If not, just come along to Roker Report because we are nothing if not shameless self-promoters...

It has certainly been another juicy week for us to get our teeth into. There is only one place to start really, mainly because I want to get it out of the way. Last week saw Darren Bent's ignominious return to the Stadium of Light. Astonishingly, the England striker expressed surprise to team mates that the vitriol with which he was met was quite so ferocious.

It makes you wonder what exactly he was expecting. Are conmen, liars, and leeches usually welcomed back to old feeding ground with affectionate smiles and warm applause? From the moment Bent stepped off the team coach he was met with an expression of anger from fans. I must also congratulate those fans who took advantage of seats directly in front of the Villa pre-match line-up to showcase banners that could have left the player in no doubt of the disdain in which he is now held on Wearside.

He didn't get his name on the score-sheet, and for that we can be grateful to two men. Kieron Westwood's save in the second half has rightly received plenty of plaudits, but someone who probably hasn't been given his due is Kieran Richardson. There has been doubts raised in most quarters about Richardson's defensive prowess on an almost weekly basis since Steve Bruce first postulated the idea of redeploying his talents in the left-back position, but his clearance to deny Bent a tap-in at the far post was defending right out of the top drawer. He displayed the speed of thought to identify the danger quick enough and, crucially, was in a very good defensive position which allowed him to deal with it.

One man who did get himself on the score-sheet for Villa, however, was Stylian Petrov. With the sheer bombardment of so-called analytic experts on TV these days, it can be tempting to try and attach blame to someone for every goal scored. But in this case that would be wrong. Sometimes you simply have to sit back and applaud the quality of the strike, cursing your luck that it has happened against you.

Fortunately, Villa themselves were soon to be in that position thanks to a strike from Connor Wickham that simply oozed quality. For the second week in a row the teenager proved a monolithic menace leading the line, but this time he got his reward with a sweetly struck finish after a very clever piece of movement that had the Stadium of Light crowd just starting to understand the hype that has surrounded him during his fledgling career.

Whilst many will see failing to beat Villa as a big missed opportunity, a point was not the end of the world. Hopefully, the manager will also see it that way because the time for chopping and changing the team and tactics on a whim must now be at an end. Following the demolition of Stoke, a solitary bad performance at Norwich was all it took for Bruce to throw out his plans and start again. There can be no such knee-jerk reaction this time. The time for having a good look at all the options available to him and experimenting is over. Now the emphasis must be on allowing the players to develop some understandings and partnerships the only way they can – by playing games together.

As we look forward to a trip to Old Trafford, the hope has to be that the trap of showing too much respect to esteemed opposition is avoided. Had we done that earlier this month then it is entirely possible we'd have come away from the Emirites with some tangible reward. Believe in themselves, and I believe the current squad have enough quality to compete with anyone on any given day.

Despite being champions and some utterly imperious early-season form, Manchester United don't quite hold the air of invincibility that they once did, and I see no reason why the lads should consider themselves beaten before a ball is even kicked. So with that in mind, It'd be very disappointing to see a return to the turgid rigidity of a 5-man midfield at the expense of a potential match-winner up front. How well Sunderland do at Old Trafford may well prove to be intrinsically linked to how brave the manager is.

It is impossible to deny that Steve Bruce has endured, and presided over, a hugely turbulent start to the season. Slowly but surely, however, we are just reaching the point where things are beginning to settle down and we can start looking forward rather than back. The manager is here to stay whether we like it or not and has largely refrained from needlessly upsetting the fans of late, there are little glimmers of formula appearing in the team's play, and the attacking talent in the squad is starting to produce. Could we be in for an uncharacteristically cheery Wearside winter? We certainly need one.

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