Time to reassess the Steve Bruce era ahead of the Sunderland manager's Wearside return? (From The Advertiser Series)
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Time to reassess the Steve Bruce era ahead of the Sunderland manager's Wearside return?
WHEN Sunderland supporters cast their eye over Hull City's season, they could be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja vu.
A strong start to the campaign, followed by a marked dip in form that engenders fears of relegation. A revolving door policy that saw a host of players come and go during each transfer window, with the identity of the club's strikers changing at regular intervals. And a sense of uncertainty over exactly where the club is heading despite results stacking up reasonably strongly in a historical context.
For Hull City since the start of the season, read Sunderland between 2009 and 2011. The common denominator? Steve Bruce. As the Hull boss prepares to make his first return to the Stadium of Light since his dismissal two-and-a-half years ago, it is hard to know quite what to make of his time on Wearside. Was it really as bad as some supporters make out, or conversely, as good as Bruce would have you believe?
The negative aspects of the Bruce era are the easiest to recount as they ultimately led to him losing his job and are therefore at the forefront of most supporters' minds.
Having inherited a Sunderland side that were 16th in the table, the 53-year-old bequeathed a team in exactly the same position after he was sacked in the wake of a dispiriting 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic. His total expenditure in the two-and-a-half years in which he was in charge amounted to £75m, although his net spend once transfer receipts are taken in account was closer to £14m. Either way, that's a fair amount of money to effectively stand still.
There were some horrific defeats along the way, most notably of course the two derby reverses to Newcastle that have only really been ameliorated by results in the last three derby encounters. Losing to Newcastle inevitably led to questions about Bruce's Northumberland roots and Magpies-supporting past, but the antipathy most Sunderland supporters eventually felt towards the former Manchester United centre-half was never about narrow-minded parochialism.
It related more to Bruce's constant, ill-advised comments about “over-expectation” - a line of thinking he has continued to pursue since his departure from the North-East – a sense that the manager never quite knew what his best team was and an unease at the constant churn of players that suggested a lack of a grand plan or long-term vision. It was the latter factor, more than anything else, that persuaded Ellis Short to jettison him.
There were some notable transfer successes, but for every Simon Mignolet there was a Marcos Angeleri, for every John O'Shea a Paolo Da Silva.
Bruce's failure to hold on to his best players was also a major source of concern, and while Sunderland's failure to match Darren Bent's wage demands was out of his hands, the departure of both Asamoah Gyan and Kenwyne Jones owed much to their manager's inability to man-manage them successfully.
By the end, therefore, Bruce had seen a reasonably successful side unravel in front of him, but more than two years on, should his reign be viewed more favourably than it often is?
Sunderland's tenth-placed finish in the 2010-11 season has not been bettered since, and still represents the club's best performance since 2001. Even Bruce's first season, when Sunderland finished 13th, is the club's joint-best result since the Peter Reid era.
Neither campaign featured a relegation battle, and while that might not sound much for a club with an average attendance approaching 40,000, subsequent events under Martin O'Neill and Paolo Di Canio suggest it is not something to be sniffed at.
Perhaps, had Bruce not been sacked in the November, the 2011-12 season would have resulted in a frantic battle against the drop. However, it is worth noting that Sunderland were never in the bottom three prior to Bruce's dismissal, and never featured in it in the final six months of the season under O'Neill.
There was an element of stability under Bruce, even if the cast list seemed to change repeatedly, and for a brief period, the North-Easterner was able to name a side that was as exciting as anything since the time of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips.
The high point probably came in November 2010 as a Sunderland side featuring the likes of Gyan, Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson trounced Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge. Aside from recent derby and Capital One Cup heroics, that was probably the Black Cats' best day for the best part of a decade.
Henderson's presence in that side is a notable one, as one of Bruce's main successes was the promotion of both the future England international and fellow academy product Jack Colback to the first team.
Henderson was an unproven novice when he returned from a loan spell at Coventry City, but after the midfielder caught his eye, in pre-season, Bruce thrust him into the senior ranks at the beginning of the 2009-10 campaign. Less than two years later, and Henderson was making a £16m move to Liverpool.
Colback was similarly callow when he was granted his senior Sunderland debut at Wolves – an outing that ended in an unfortunate dismissal – and Bruce's faith has been thoroughly justified by the midfielder's development into a first-team regular.
While plenty of Sunderland supporters bemoan their club's failure to develop local talent, you sometimes need a manager like Bruce to display the boldness required to give youth a chance.
Today's game affords the home fans their first opportunity to pass judgement on the Bruce era, and the verdict is unlikely to be a positive one. On reflection, his reign was not without its merits, although perhaps the fairest thing that can be said about it is that was not quite as bad as it felt when it ended.