Captain's Blog: A Steve Bruce Retrospective

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I think most Sunderland fans will agree with me that it has been an odd kind of a season. The January transfer window has been and gone and the run-in is just starting to appear on the horizon, and yet for us the season feels so fresh as if it has barely just begun.

In a sense, it has. The club has been reborn under Martin O'Neill to such an extent that Steve Bruce's tenure this season feels like little more than a distant nightmare.

On Monday morning, however, that blissful oblivion to Bruce was shattered to some extent. I am sure I wasn't the only Sunderland fan besieged by Wolves fans eager to garner opinion on the man the betting markets have tentatively installed as the favourite to replace Mick McCarthy in the manager's office at Molineux.

So have the wounds sufficiently healed now for an objective and fair retrospective of Steve Bruce's reign as Sunderland manager?

Some people love to remind me that I was one of the last to turn against Bruce. Fair enough, of course. It is perfectly true, but I am not ashamed of it in the least.

Very rarely in life does anything avoid eventually turning sour and ending in tears. Darren Bent barely put a foot wrong on the pitch here, for example, but it ended in tears. So those who had gleefully predicted from early in his Sunderland career that this would also be the case with Steve Bruce and expecting a pat on the back for their 'insight' will have a long wait as far as I am concerned.

When Bruce arrived I was happy with the appointment. In this day and age with 24-hour news channels desperate for drama to break the monotonous regurgitation of the same old tired stories, it can be easy to allow yourself to get swept away with the speculation linking the club to names that were never really realistically in the fray. But, having lost all the momentum from promotion two years before, Bruce was a realistic contender who seemed ideally positioned to cement the club's position in mid-table.

Upon arrival, Bruce found a squad heavy in numbers but almost totally bereft of star quality. He wasted no time in displaying the transfer market acumen that even his biggest detractors dare not deny. What seemed an immovable rabble of deadwood to his predecessors soon found their way to the exit doors. In addition, Sunderland had almost immediately become an attractive destination for players who still had some repute with which to gamble.

To his credit, establishing Sunderland in the middle of the table was exactly what he did. Could he have done more given the generous backing of Ellis Short? Almost certainly.

But he achieved his remit with at least a modicum of aplomb. Sufficiently, anyway, so that when Sunderland looked likely to get dragged into a relegation battle, the bar had been raised enough to warrant quick and decisive action. The fact that was the case just 2 years after escaping the drop on the final day of the season is probably a reasonable tribute to the job he did.

The problem was that Bruce's success was inextricably linked to the form and fitness of his players and so it could never hope to be sustainable. There was never any evidence of a system or tactical plan in his mind. So the question of 'how will we score goals?' which Martin O'Neill has addressed so effortlessly, to Bruce was only ever a question of 'who will score the goals?'. Individuals didn't just shine in a Bruce Sunderland team – they carried it. When they could carry it no more, the wins dried up for weeks on end.

When positive results stopped, the excuses started. For most of us, the sight of Bruce, stood uncomfortably in front of the Match of the Day cameras, wearily swaying side to side, and spouting endless excuses each more ludicrous than the last will be the enduring image of his reign as manager. You never quite knew if his red face was the cold, his health, or just sheer embarrassment at what he was saying.

It would be revisionist history at its most transparent to try and suggest there were tears shed amongst the fans when Bruce left Sunderland. I was certainly a strong advocate of change by that point and he barely had a supporter left in the whole stadium. Despite media outrage, the decision to sack him is one that Martin O'Neill is currently vindicating on a weekly basis.

But now the dust has settled and the wounds have healed, I don't think it is unfair to say that Bruce did a reasonable job. He took a relegation-haunted club and established them strongly enough in the Premier League so that when the wheels came off they were able to attract a replacement of genuine pedigree.

You won't find many arguing that Sunderland are not better off having cut ties with Bruce back in November. However, it is just as true to say that Sunderland are better off for having him as well.

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