6 February ~ Following Sunderland's 1-0 victory over Arsenal on November 21, I celebrated by treating myself to a copy of Striker! by Steve Bruce. This novel, written while Bruce was Huddersfield manager in 1999, is half autobiography and half murder-mystery, topped off with the realities of lower-league football and some wholesome north-eastern values. It is a bizarre but oddly compelling mixture. But Sunderland haven't won since and I'm starting to worry that the book has something to do with it.
After beating the Gunners Sunderland lay two points off fourth place and Arsène Wenger's customary sour attitude in defeat was easy to laugh off. Asked to assess his opponent's progress, Wenger replied: "You need to judge them when they play against a team of their level." Unfortunately, six defeats and four draws later, he seems to have a point. Sunderland now sit just three points outside the bottom three and today's home game is against Wigan, one place and two points below them. According to Steve Bruce this match has become season-defining in its importance.
A major problem seems to a lack of confidence. The team looks incapable of making the simplest of passes and appears mentally vulnerable. Players that achieved the club's best-ever start to a Premier League season now look ponderous and tentative. During the grim 0-0 draw with Stoke last Monday Andy Reid's corners seemed to have oddly old-fashioned swing, as if taken with a sodden leather ball than the latest composite plastic. Injuries to key players have also disrupted the season. If new loan signing Alan Hutton makes his debut this afternoon it will be Sunderland's 15th different back four combination so far this season.
In the stands Sunderland supporters are now divided into two extremes. The optimists, still in the majority, speak of giving Bruce time to mould his own team, letting injured players return to fitness and plead for patience. The pessimists – those that shout the loudest – are disappointed, frustrated and getting increasingly critical of Bruce's style and methods. The rift is getting nastier too. The negative camp accuses the "happy clappers" of sitting around while the club again fails. The retort is that a small glimpse of success is now making people behave "like Newcastle fans".
Most supporters are not yet looking at relegation as a possibility but only for the fact that, like last season, there are probably three worse teams in the bottom half of the Premier League. Yet this season does feel like a missed opportunity. Back in November optimism was not just based around a good run of form. The future looked genuinely promising. We had our first proven top-division manager since Peter Reid. Large-scale investment was bringing together a talented squad capable of beating top-four sides, something that we had jealously watched other clubs do, never expecting that it could be us. Last but not least, our local rivals were stuck in the Championship for at least a season. Now the season feels humdrum and shaky but, most depressingly of all, so very familiar.
But maybe it's all down to the curse of Steve Bruce's book. Talking to a friend about how to resolve the problem we decided that burning was too drastic an option. So he's decided to read it instead. He's promised to finish the 128 pages by kick-off against Wigan, so don't be too surprised if Sunderland's dreadful run ends this afternoon. Ed Upright