Steve Bruce definitely has the look of a man feeling the pressure right now. His press conferences and comments have taken on a decidedly belligerent tone and bare all the hallmarks of a man being backed into a corner and coming onto the front foot in a strange marriage of defiance and desperation. Bruce lamenting the injury situation is nothing new, of course. We have had the privilege of having that particular nugget rammed down our throats on a weekly basis for the last couple of months. But last week Bruce directed a little vitriol in the direction of the club's fans. So what do we make of it? Does he have a point?
Lets get the formalities out of the way first and ensure we are all on the same page here. For those who have not seen the comments Bruce made to The Northern Echo last week, here they are in full.
“It is the most difficult job I've had because of the expectation. A Wigan, a Bolton or a Blackburn will accept 13th or 14th position because they know that's probably their limitations. Because of the vast support we have, and how geographically isolated we are, it's very different here.
Different rules and expectations apply. It's almost like it's own principality. That's an issue, but it's also a huge attraction for all managers.
What creates that expectation? I think it's a combination of a lot of things that are unique to Sunderland and the North-East.
What gives Sunderland a divine right to succeed when we've finished seventh in the Premier League twice in 50 years? Where does the expectation come from? Is it just because of the volume of support that we have? Partly, and I also think we have a press that helps foster it. It does become very difficult.”
So, to sum up, according to our manager the expectations of the supporters are so far out of sync with reality that it has become a detriment to the club. Bold words indeed. My first instinct as a supporter when I heard these comments was to leap on the defensive and be outraged that the manager who has presided over the shambles we have witnessed of late could try and defer a portion of responsibility for it onto the fans. But when viewed in isolation from my passions as a supporter, some of what he said started to carry a lot of merit.
The outpouring of hostility from a large section of our support calling for Steve Bruce's head on stick during our shocking run of form has certainly provoked intense debate for weeks now amongst fans. I have spoken to many, both in the online community and in person, and even some of the most patient and considered Sunderland fans I know have slowly started to wane in their support for Bruce and began to add their voice to the clamour to see him relieved of his duties. The prevalent view appears to be that the utterly demoralising run of form Bruce has presided over this season is a Bruce-specific problem, exclusive to teams under his leadership. That assertion sits uncomfortably with me, so I did a little research.
1 win in 10
13/11 – 16/1
1 win in 9
14/11 – 5/1
1 win in 8
10/11 – 28/12
1 win in 8
12/2 – 25/4
1 win in 8
28/8 – 31/10
1 win in 8
15/8 – 17/10
1 win in 8
30/10 – 11/12
1 win in 8
12/2 – 26/4
1 win in 7
5/3 – 26/4
Whilst there can be no denying that our run of form was, and still is, wretched, it is apparent that just about every club around us in the league and sharing our ambitions have endured a similar spell at some point this season, and a few with far greater aspirations than us too. Undoubtedly fair to also say that during our spell the fixture list and injury situation has been especially cruel. I have seen words such as “embarrassing” and “disgrace” used to justify calls to relieve Bruce of his managerial duties based upon the recent run, but I find those utterly ludicrous statements to throw around, especially from Sunderland fans. We have seen disgrace and embarrassment up close and personal like few others have. The 15 and 19 pointers were an embarrassing disgrace. Sustaining a run of form comparable to one endured by almost every top Premier League club this season, is not. Yet still, based upon the expectations of the fans, and the belief those expectations were not being met, the fury directed at the manager was huge. So on that level, I can entirely sympathise with Bruce's frustrations and his point of view.
But I can't remember it always being so. As I have mentioned before in this blog, when I first started my love affair with the club, the McMenemy era and a stint of Third Division (old money) football had just about battered the hopes of the support into total submission. It was a case of meeting up with your mates, having a laugh, make the customary joke that this would be the week that John Kay would finally score and make daft bets on by which spectacular method he'd achieve it, and if the football wasn't a total disaster then it had been a good day. In fact, I can trace my appreciation of satire directly back to the Clockstand paddocks having a right good laugh at how rubbish our team was.
So what changed? Well, we dared to get quite decent for a bit, but not before our neighbours got very decent and spent years rubbing our noses in it. But the club was about to reward the fans for their patience – with a record-breaking humiliation, the spectre of which, I believe, still looms large over the club today. For every active supporter it turned away from the club completely, it turned another into an incurable cynic. The club was lumbered with a debt to a section of its support it could never repay without doing something very special indeed. For many, support had become conditional and attached to conditions is the expectation to see them met. Obviously, no one is saying it is all of the support. That would be an unfair and entirely ignorant generalization. But it is enough of a number to create and perpetuate dissension.
The biggest thing to change, of course, has been football itself. It was not hard to find the money for a day spent watching football at Roker Park, and that must have surely contributed to the jovial atmosphere it often generated. But football has since sold its soul to the corporations and with it sold its fans down the river. What once was routine, now is a luxury. Ticket prices have gone through the roof, Sky subscriptions likewise. The price of a cheeseburger in the ground costs more than the price of admission at Roker Park when I started following the lads. Football clubs everywhere, including Sunderland, have taken their fans and turned them into customers. It hasn't been an accident. It has been a deliberate move to exploit their passion and squeeze as much money as possible from them. There is a sting in the tail, though. The loyalty and devotion of fans are infinite and unconditional. But they are very much conditional for customers. And who has profited most from this transition from sport to business? Football players and football managers, and it genuinely sickens me to see people happy to reap the rewards from abusing the love of the game held by the fans and then having the nerve to turn around and complain if we feel they aren't doing enough to deserve it. No, I am not having that at all, Mr Bruce.
But that isn't the reason I ultimately reject Bruce's complaints that Sunderland fans demand too much. The reason is because I strenuously dismiss the belief that “a Wigan, a Bolton, or a Blackburn” have limitations. If a club like Villareal can regularly compete in European football, often Champions League football, with a splattering of world class footballers and an average attendance that “a Bolton” would be disappointed with, then just about anyone can. We have seen Middlesboro and Fulham in recent UEFA Cup Finals. These clubs don't achieve by having a bottomless pit of money, or a massive and devoted fan base. The only limitations a football club have are those they accept and impose upon themselves, so I am not overjoyed hearing the manager of my club discussing such things.
So we may indeed have great and demanding expectations of our club. It doesn't have to be a bad thing. No one ever achieved great things by aiming small. Great expectations can drive and inspire a club to reach beyond their dreams, and it is upon great expectations that great football clubs are built. While I can see and understand the frustration the manager sees in what has been an unjustified and vociferous overreaction to the bad run of form from the Sunderland support, I would suggest that it is he who requires to alter his expectations for this club, not us.