21 September ~ Once checked-in, unpacked and beginning to relax, one of my favourite games on holiday is asking: "Who would you least like to see arriving at the hotel now?" This conversation has often been extended to football managers – Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis (complete with baseball cap) are two faces I'd hate to see queuing for the diving board. As a Sunderland fan, our disappointing start to the season, allayed by the 4-0 win over Stoke on Sunday, has made me question more than ever what I really think of Steve Bruce. And the fact is, I'm not really sure.
I can understand why Bruce is unpopular with supporters of other clubs. While at Birmingham and Wigan, I always believed Bruce was a good manager but found his interviews irksome. This season he has consistently returned to two themes in media appearances: overreaction (of the fans, press or both) and the defeat to Newcastle in our first home game. After the thumping of Stoke, a result for which Bruce can take a lot of credit, he gracelessly stated: "The mass hysteria that has engulfed us for the last two weeks after the defeat against Newcastle has surprised me. We finished tenth last season, but we lose against Newcastle and all hell breaks loose."
While the derby defeat was depressing (and Bruce seems unable to motivate Sunderland players for games against Newcastle) this was just one of several factors in the criticism. Most supporters are able to look beyond one game, even if their manager isn't. So the fact that until last weekend Sunderland had won only two home games in 2011 was much more important. There were also genuine grievances about negative tactics, a deserved Carling Cup exit to Brighton after starting with no strikers and the continued absence of left-sided players after a busy transfer window.
But, unsurprisingly, that 4-0 victory has lightened the mood considerably. Bruce changed the team around and it worked. After only two new signings started on the opening day at Liverpool it was heartening to see a team containing six new players achieve a big win. These transfers have definitely improved the squad (in some areas significantly more than others). And, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out recently, since the end of 2009-10 Bruce has spent £43 million but actually brought in £52m. While Sunderland have been left short of proven strikers after the murky departure of Asamoah Gyan to the UAE, we may never know the full details of this move. Sunderland play Norwich and West Brom next – if the team can continue to gel I'm optimistic we can pick up some points.
So, while Bruce does irritate me, I'm content that he is the manager of my club. Though I still wouldn't like to turn up to the pool on the first day of a two-week break and see him floating past on a lilo, sipping from a piña colada. Ed Upright