Let me take you back to March 9th 2010. Following a hugely encouraging start to the season, Steve Bruce was presiding over his first 'blip' as Sunderland manager. As fans descended upon the Stadium of Light for the visit of Bolton Wanderers, 14 games had amassed since they had last witnessed a win for their side. Amidst understandable murmurings of discontent from the faithful but buoyed by an early Frazier Campbell goal, positivity was restored with a thumping and wholly unexpected 4-0 win.
Sunday's demolition of Stoke was not dissimilar. We can argue all we want over the justification of the criticisms directed at Steve Bruce of late, but it is undeniable that going into this weekend he was a man under pressure. I tweeted on the eve of the game that one way or another we would know whether or not the players were willing to fight for their manager by now, and clearly they are. In many regards, that made Stoke City ideal opposition for this week because they offer no hiding place on the pitch. I myself have called into question whether Bruce is capable of man-managing the bigger and more challenging personalities, and that question is yet to be answered, but the fact that every one of his players stood up to the test manfully at such a time speaks volumes and should allay any fears we have that Bruce is unable to motivate his current squad.
Unquestionably, the biggest single contributing factor in the dramatic up-turn in performance on Sunday was Bruce's decision to replace Lee Cattermole with David Vaughan. It was a change for which many fans have been clamouring for weeks, but it was an incredibly courageous decision by Bruce to drop his trusted captain at a time when he appeared short on allies. For all Cattermole is no where near as ineffective as his detractors will have you believe, it is fair to comment that composure is not his strong suit. But no such accusation can be laid at the feet of his replacement. David Vaughan produced a master class of midfield tenacity allied with quick and efficient distribution of the ball which was at the very heart of a performance full of verve and energy.
I am convinced that the by-product of dropping Cattermole to the bench, John O'Shea captaining the side, also produced a real positive impact on the performance. The Irishman may not be the traditional blood and thunder kind of skipper but he commands respect by default for his achievements in the game and possesses an assured and calming authority. It is no secret that Stoke are a team who like to push the rules to their limits, especially with their various hijinks at set pieces (yes Messrs Huth and Shawcross, I am looking at you), so a captain commanding the respect of the referee, rather than the disdain of referees that Lee Cattermole carries with him, could not have possibly hurt matters.
I am sure that it will have hurt Cattermole to have been made the fall-guy, but a reminder to him that he can not take his position in the team for granted may just be the motivation required to see him regain the form of his early Sunderland career. We mustn't forget that he is still a young player and his time to impress will come again. That said, there is little reason to rush him back into the side with Vaughan and O'Shea proving such effective custodians of his duties.
But while Bruce must be commended for his bravery in his team selection, his post-match blast at the journalists who in his opinion has created the unfair 'mass hysteria' surrounding Sunderland's start to the season is just plain bewildering. Whether he is right in his assertions or not is irrelevant. He took the opportunity to address the issue a mere matter of days ago, and did so with venom. But choosing to repeat it, and then refuse to speak to journalists following completion of his TV commitments, reeks of issuing a premature and wholly unjustified "I told you so" and making himself the story when the focus should have been on the players who had just dug him out of a hole and kick started the season.
The manager has taken a lot of criticism of late and, although it is clearly hurting him, much of it has been reasonable. Whilst the victory over Stoke was welcome it does not singularly prove the majority of those concerns to be unfounded. It was a great start but a consistent run of good form is what is required to finally silence the critics. Despite that, Bruce had rightly emerged from the game with the plaudits after his couragious team selection proved the catalyst for the win and after displaying beyond any reasonable doubt that he still retains the support of his players. He had made his point. Firing his broadside at the media merely served to cheapen it.