STEVE Bruce would love Sunderland to do well in the FA Cup this season, particularly as he has never reached the latter stages of the competition as a manager. It is a blot on his managerial CV, but it is the black mark against his name following the 7-2 defeat at Chelsea which worries him more.
Bruce has never been on the receiving end of such a comprehensive thrashing. He has never been so badly beaten as a manager or a player, so humiliated and so embarrassed after 90 minutes of football as he was after that horror show at Stamford Bridge last weekend.
After such an excellent start to the season, Sunderland had looked like serious contenders for a European place, but where there was so much pride in the autumn there has since been an almighty fall.
The Black Cats did not so much fall flat on their faces in west London as repeatedly slammed into the floor. Sunderland have had more than their fair share of injuries to contend with in recent weeks, but there was more than just players missing against Chelsea. There was a lack of organisation and a lack of heart and Bruce is ashamed to admit it.
“If you weren’t grumpy after Chelsea .... It was the biggest hiding I’ve ever had and it takes time to get over it and recover,” said Bruce, who is aiming to make at least one more signing following the arrival of Matthew Kilgallon before the close of the transfer window.
“It was a master class from Chelsea but we were sadly lacking. As a manager I took it personally. I’ve had to lift myself and take a few people with me. We want to erase the debacle last week and we want a response. We will never forget it, that’s for sure, but we have to get a huge response at Portsmouth.
“For all of the great times you have in your career, it is the bad ones you always remember.
“It takes a lot of getting over, but as in life, it is how you respond to things in football that are the true test.”
After a run of just two wins in 14 games – one of which came at home to Blue Square Conference side Barrow in the previous round of the FA Cup – Sunderland’s season is unravelling.
The Black Cats are not on the critical list just yet and Bruce’s first choice XI should be good enough to comfortably finish in the top half of the table, but the slump has seen hopes of a Euro Cup challenge replaced by a nagging fear of yet another relegation battle. Sunderland are just four points better off than Hull City, who are third from bottom, and should their miserable run of form continue it will not be much longer until they are fighting for their lives once more.
That was never supposed to happen under Bruce.
We may have wanted too much, too soon as far as a top eight finish is concerned and Bruce’s position is under no threat because chairman Niall Quinn is sensible enough to realise meaningful change does not happen overnight, but the last couple of months have been painful for everyone concerned. Sunderland have already been to Portugal for a training break to try to lift the depression, but it is a break from the Premier League which perhaps offers them the best chance of a recovery. “The away form has been pretty awful all season and it’s not going to be easy, but it’s a chance to get a result and stay in the cup,” said Bruce, who has enjoyed far more success as a player in the FA Cup than he has as a manger. “I’ve got the utmost respect for the FA Cup.
“The FA Cup is a great competition. I watched Aston Villa in the Carling Cup in the week and people talk about clubs not taking it seriously, but their fans were delighted they have got to Wembley.
“The cup can lift your season and we need that. We need to kick-start our season again.
“We’ve had a few injuries, we’ve lost our key players and we haven’t been able to cope, but they’re coming back now. That will make a difference and we’re still trying to bring one or two players to the club before the close of the window.”
Craig Gordon, Kieran Richardson, Michael Turner, Andy Reid and possibly Lee Cattermole will return to the side at Fratton Park and Bruce will take no prisoners in his pre-match team talk.
He added: “The travelling supporters are incredible and they dig deep to support their team. The players were as disappointed as they were, but we were outclassed in every department last weekend. This is a chance to make amends. We have to try and reward them with a performance.
“I’ve not really had a cup run as a manager, I’ve always got one of the Big Four early on and that was that.
“When I was at Birmingham I lost in the quarter-final to Sunderland who lost to Millwall in the semis.
“It is something great and I’d love one this season.
“Firstly, though, we want a result and a performance to get us going again this season.”