Well, what a pickle. Between star strikers upping and running off to the middle east, Phil Bardsley's retrospective 4-game ban for violent conduct, Titus Bramble's alleged misdemeanours and subsequent suspension, a shocking opening two months of the season that has seen a pitiful solitary win picked up from 8 games, and losing Niall Quinn as the club's figurehead, I am sure I am not alone in waking up every morning worrying about what fresh kick in the knackers the club will treat us to next. Being a Sunderland fan has certainly been a testing and morale-sapping experience of late. Or has it?
Ask Steve Bruce how things are going, and you'd likely hear a very different story. A story about how well he is doing, how brilliant a squad we have assembled, how we should be lavishing praise and gratitude upon him for delivering us what he presumably considers to be the holy grail of a single 10th place finish, and how if you disagree with any of that then you are just willingly buying into a media-led sense of 'hysteria', probably fed by your own unreasonably lofty expectations.
It is fair to say that I strenuously disagree with the manager's assessment of the situation. But I am not here to spin some anti-Bruce propaganda. There are those out there who still back him, and I have to really commend those people for their patience. I know that in no way do I speak on behalf of Sunderland AFC fans and nor would I ever dream of trying to. However, Bruce claims he can not understand the criticisms that have come his way this season, so I am more than happy to spell out to him why my own personal level of discontent with his leadership of the club grows with every passing week.
Perhaps the greatest single contributing factor to Bruce's confusion is the fact that it is based upon a false premise. He seems to be labouring under the impression that fan concerns over his stewardship of the club began with the home derby defeat to Newcastle in August. But stirrings of discontent went back considerably longer than that – to his second crippling long run without a win in as many seasons during the early part of the year. Concerns were merely put on hold over the summer. They did not evaporate.
Whilst fixtures at the beginning of that second run were unkind, abject home performances against WBA, Fulham, and Wolves were less easy to dismiss. The wretched injury list that blighted the squad during this time was a factor, of course, but it is the fact that home performances of that nature have now become the norm that is so unsettling, injuries or no injuries. Upon taking over the club in 2006, Niall Quinn described the home matches that preceded his arrival as "fans taking their seats and waiting to get beat". Well after a meagre 3 home wins since Big Ben chimed us into the new year, a similar situation is developing now. Are fans who pay hundreds to attend games in tough economic times not entitled to be critical of such a disgraceful record, and are those criticisms really that tough to comprehend, Steve?
Away form may have improved, but not sufficiently to carry the burden created by surrendering home points as prolifically as we have been doing. In our last 25 matches, we have witnessed just 6 wins and 23 points – less points and less wins than last season's bottom club West Ham managed to achieve the same number of games into their relegation campaign. The stats are obviously not perfect, and nor do I claim them to be. Football is not played in calendar years. But the point is that for a period of seven months of football, we have seen our team produce consistent relegation form. Whether or not that is worthy of the sack is another debate entirely, but worthy of criticism it most certainly is.
Then there is the matter of Bruce's 'best squad' since he has been here. Is it? Really? A single suspension to Titus Bramble was all it took to see a laborious Michael Turner thrust back into the centre of defence last week. Behind him, only untried 18-year-old Louis Laing currently provides direct cover. Elsewhere, the squad still suffers from two massive deficiencies that it did the day Bruce walked into the club. Specifically, the lack of an experienced quality goalkeeper who can be relied upon, and being very light on any real natural left-sided balance of proven quality.
Up front, the situation is even tougher to accept. Failing to replace Darren Bent in January was perfectly understandable given the time constraints. But failing to replace him one full transfer window and £10m+ on strikers later is unacceptable. When the Premier League campaign resumes for Sunderland after the international break, they will go to the Emirates without a single established senior striker at their disposal. Niklas Bendtner is unavailable under the terms of his loan and Asamoah Gyan playing for someone else entirely. That leaves Connor Wickham and Ji Dong-won. Both fine young players, but young players that Bruce did not even deem ready enough to pitch against a Championship club a matter of weeks ago.
I could go on here citing other legitimate causes for complaints such as the appalling cup record than has seen us comfortably beaten by two lower-league teams this year, and his strange penchant for standing in front of national TV cameras and criticising the fans seemingly befuddled as to why last season's tenth place finish hasn't seen him offered the key to the city, but I think I have made my point. I can see sense in the argument of those that believe he needs time to forge his new squad into a team. But I find his assertion that criticism of his is 'ridiculous' bordering on the insulting, especially when delivered with such shameless belligerence.