x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Steve Bruce losing games and popularity

The beleaguered manager will find it hard to overcome the Sunderland faithful having presided over a long and unwanted run of results, writes Richard Jolly.

Steve Bruce has seen his Sunderland side win just twice at home since January 1.
Steve Bruce has seen his Sunderland side win just twice at home since January 1.

The season, we are often told, is a marathon, not a sprint. The same applies to the dubious distinction of being the first manager to lose their job, a contest often decided in the campaign's early weeks.

A reluctant winner is usually found long before December arrives. Victories have proved all too elusive for Steve Bruce of late and, if a sizeable section of Sunderland fans have their way, a winner beckons. The 50 year old has been rejected by the supporters, rather than his hitherto supportive employers, but events are conspiring against him.

That owner Ellis Short has replaced Niall Quinn, who appointed Bruce and awarded him a new contract in February, as chairman may not bode well. The directors' box gave the American a vantage point to observe anything that could go wrong did go wrong against Wigan Athletic on Saturday.

At home against the team who began the day bottom of the table, it was in theory the easiest game of the season, but Sunderland's self-destructive tendencies surfaced. There were missed chances, a theme of a profligate team, the errors committed by Bruce's signings, with the goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and the defender Wes Brown contriving to hand Wigan the injury-time winner, and the offensive vitriol directed at the "Geordie" manager.

Bruce's upbringing as a Newcastle United fan would not be an issue were Sunderland winning, but they have not been for too long.

This has been Bruce's annus horribilis. Sunderland have taken 31 points from 31 games in 2011 in an extended slump that is especially apparent to the Wearside public; they have only won twice at home since January 1 -indeed, they have triumphed as often at Bolton Wanderers' Reebok Stadium in that time - allowing discontent to fester.

Although, with the sales of Darren Bent and Jordan Henderson, he actually boasts a transfer market profit this year, a reputation as a big spender lingers.

That Sunderland made 11 summer signings hardly helps his case; Bruce has been allowed to remodel the squad but while there have been exceptions - set-piece specialist Sebastian Larsson has excelled - collectively they have underperformed.

This is a team that looks better on paper than the pitch, which always reflects poorly on the manager.

The biggest problem, triggering other failings, is a difficulty putting the ball in the net.

Rewind a year and Bruce had an enviable dilemma, wondering how he could squeeze Bent, Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck into the same side. Now none of the trio remain at the Stadium of Light, the ill-timed departures of Bent and Gyan at and, in the Ghanaian's case, after the end of transfer windows condemning Sunderland to a year of having to make do and mend in attack.

The borrowed Nicklas Bendtner has been ineffective, the promising Connor Wickham has been injured. Sunderland have lacked a cutting edge and the knives have been sharpened for Bruce as his record has deteriorated.

He has won 28 per cent of his league games for the Black Cats. It is inferior to his performance at Wigan (32 per cent), when he inherited a relegation struggle and had to operate with a smaller pool of players.

The 2009 decision to quit Wigan for Wearside was understandable; bigger clubs have an allure. They appeal to the ambitious.

But they also bring higher expectations. Wigan is a less pressurised atmosphere and Roberto Martinez, Bruce's successor at the DW Stadium, was in no danger of losing his job when his side lost eight successive games recently.

Dave Whelan, Wigan Athletic's owner, supports his managers and the benefit of having a smaller support is that there are fewer fans calling for a change.

In a decade of Premier League management, Bruce has normally been able to steer his sides to lower mid-table safety, but after spending money in previous seasons and granting their manager time to assemble his own team, Sunderland hoped for more.

Now their followers want a new face at the helm. Personable as he is, it will be hard for Bruce to win them over from here. In a results business, he is losing both matches and a popularity contest. Because while Sunderland supporters normally revel in any Geordie's misfortune, this time it is cruelly personal.

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The continuing problems of the Premier League's other managerial Steve, Blackburn Rovers' Kean, overshadowed Stoke City's 3-1 win over Rovers on Saturday. Nevertheless, it helped illustrate why Stoke have rarely been in danger of relegation since their promotion to the top flight in 2008.

After four successive league defeats, they responded with a dominant performance and a much deserved win. It showed why the level-headed Stoke manager Tony Pulis remains successful: he has always been able to prevent his side entering a downwards spiral.

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Amid extraordinary scorelines, prolific pacesetters and unexpected routs, this has been a difficult season for goalkeepers. But the weekend was notable for shot-stoppers' excellence.

If the outstanding individual performance was a contest between Manchester City's Joe Hart and Newcastle's Tim Krul, with the Dutchman probably shading it, there were other notable displays.

A grief-stricken Shay Given, a close friend of the late Gary Speed, kept a clean sheet for Aston Villa at Swansea City, Petr Cech preserved Chelsea's lead against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Ali Al Habsi was terrific for Wigan at Sunderland.

 

sports@thenational.ae