BUSINESS as usual was the message Sunderland tried to hammer home at yesterday’s pre-match Press conference. In essence, they insist, nothing has changed at the Stadium of Light these past two weeks.
Therein lies the problem. The last time the Black Cats played, their manager Steve Bruce was under pressure from an increasingly restless fanbase, their team looking for only its second win this season. Nothing has changed.
The party line is that shunting Niall Quinn from the chairman’s seat into an “international development” role has had absolutely no effect on Bruce’s job security. Fine, were it cast-iron in the first place.
Sunderland say new chairman, Ellis Short, is as patient as his fiercely-loyal predecessor was towards Bruce. With no evidence to the contrary from the tight-lipped Texan, there is no reason to doubt that.
But Bruce knows losing football managers always live on borrowed time. Nothing has changed. If he doubts it, he only needs glance at the home dugout tomorrow.
“He (Short) rang me last Monday to say ignore what’s in the papers,” he revealed. “He reassured me everything’s okay. Listen, I need a few results, it’s as simple as that.
“As I’ve said repeatedly, I won’t take that (patience) for granted. I’m judged on one thing, which is winning a match and at the moment we’re not winning enough. I’m open to criticism but certainly in the way the club is run, nothing has changed that much.”
Having been allowed to break Sunderland’s record transfer fee in two of his three summers in charge, Bruce can have no complaints about Short’s backing.
“One of the beauties about him since he came in here, he lets you manage,” he said. “The football domain is mine and that’s not going to change. I don’t think anything will change.
“Certainly he’s going to take a bit more of a hands-on approach, which is good. My relationship with him for two years has been great.
“As a person, he’s fine, he’s perfectly okay. He’s been a role model of the way owners should be. You don’t see him hogging the headlines, you don’t see him on TV, he’s come in and very quietly turned Sunderland around.
“He wants a club that’s going to be trying to be competing at the top end of the table. That means to get up around 10th. It’s been very difficult to break into in the past but that’s all he’s ever wanted since the first day I met him. We’ve always had a decent relationship from the day I met him, so in that respect I don’t think anything’s going to change.”
Arsène Wenger is living proof of the fickle nature of football. Like Bruce, he may command steadfast support from his club’s powerbrokers, but it is seriously waning on the terraces. Protest group “Arsenal FC Not PLC” plan to unfurl a “Wenger Out” banner tomorrow.
It is astonishing. While Bruce must rely on a decent track record with bottom half of the Premier League sides and countless examples throughout footballing history of patient chairmen being rewarded with trophies, Wenger’s achievements are monumental, changing the mindset not just of a club but a league.
If Herbert Chapman turned Arsenal into the club they are, Wenger made them everything they stand for today. He is responsible for turning a once boring team into England’s most beautiful, and the trophies he lined the cabinet with helped pay for the hugely impressive stadium Sunderland visit this weekend. There has been no silverware since 2005, but their run in the Champions League has been extended to a 14th season.
“It gives us all hope, I have to say!” Bruce joked. “The fella’s had a difficult start but year in, year out under difficult circumstances he’s been quite incredible in what he’s done. He might not have won anything in six years, but has he had the financial clout? It doesn’t look like it from where I’m sitting.
“I think it’s been to the detriment of young British managers because clubs looked at the job Arsène Wenger’s done and have thought, ‘Let’s go and get a new Arsène Wenger’. There’s not many of them around, he’s a terrific manager.”
While Short cannot lay claim to a similar transformation, Bruce thinks he can be proud of what he has achieved from a far more humble starting point.
“Let’s not forget, two years ago, they were very nearly relegated and could quite easily have been,” he stressed. “We’ve been five years in the top-flight for the first time in God knows how long (26 years). Him and Niall have done it very well indeed and I don’t think that will change.
“His aim was to get a club that can challenge for the top 10. That’s never been possible before for Sunderland, so let’s remember that fact. It’s never been easy for the club, so he’s done very well.”
Bruce was the manager who guided the Black Cats into the top half for the first time in a decade, and only the third in 55 years. It was only five months ago, but already it is long forgotten. In football, some things never change.