STEVE Bruce had rushed back to Wearside from a wedding in Wolverhampton to be there, but even a serious case of sleep deprivation couldn’t dull the genial charm that has come to typify his dealings with the media.
Joking about his support for South Shields’ X Factor contender, Joe McElderry, and gently chiding a female reporter for her fondness for attending Roy Keane press conferences, you would never have guessed he was operating on three hours’ sleep and plenty of caffeine as he delivered another of his upbeat briefings.
Asked about his side’s frustrating tendency to choke on their travels, however, and his mood instantly darkened.
“It is doing my head in – yes, that’s the correct way of saying it,” he said.
Bruce may be enjoying the return to his native North East, but this has not been one of his better weeks. Defeat by Wigan, and the manner of their surrender, has ensured a tough week for his coaching staff and his players – seven days spent forensically examining the causes for their acute travel sickness.
Bruce may be widely regarded as one of football’s good guys but you don’t get to his elevated position in the game without baring your teeth once in a while.
And Sunderland’s players felt the ruthless side of a manager who was horrified to see his side repeat the mistakes that marred trips to Burnley and Birmingham.
“It’s difficult to take because we can do it,” he admitted. “We were very good at Manchester United, we won at Bolton, were good at Spurs and played well in the first half at Burnley. But we have also had three horror shows at Stoke, Wigan and Birmingham. We just didn't get going.
“Is there a big match mentality? Well if there is then we need to get it sorted out and I have told them that.
“If we can't sort it out and I don't get a response and it keeps happening then the only thing I can do is change the personnel. We can't have this mentality where we are okay against the big teams and then let ourselves down against the bread and butter sides and don't do things properly.
“It is as simple as that, I have spelled that out in no uncertain terms. It has been a tough week for them.
“Now I am expecting them to respond to it. I am hoping that the real Sunderland will show up against Fulham because if we do then I am convinced we can get a result there.” Bruce’s initial anger had quelled a bit by Monday morning, but receiving his regular bulletin from the club’s video experts sent him to a dark place again.
The Sunderland manager is an unashamed student of statistics and Opta doesn’t lie – not only had his players not performed at the DW Stadium, they had not matched the effort or physical exertions of previous weeks.
“The way technology is you can actually show them when things have gone wrong. It is blatantly simple,” he said.
“We have picked a couple of games, shown them and they are all down on their stats from where they should be.
“They don't like to hear or see that of course.
“But the one thing a footballer wants is the next game to come around and we are hoping they are going to take that on board and leave these horrible performances behind.
“The incentive for them is that there are not many clubs with more supporters, bigger crowds and a better stage to play on than here at Sunderland.
“But even with an average away record – I am talking about three or four more points here – we would be sitting up in fifth or sixth.
“In the big games against Man Utd and Liverpool and Arsenal results are a bonus to get you into the top 10, but it is the bread and butter that’s letting us down.
“That is the disappointment.”
The immediate answer will be to change personnel and formation.
Although John Menshah’s calf injury means he is not available to rejoin the back four, Kenwyne Jones is expected to recover from a dead leg suffered in midweek reserve duty to partner Darren Bent.
That means an end to the modified 4-5-1 that has relied on Kieran Richardson to get forward and support Sunderland’s nine-goal striker, who has notched two-thirds of his tally on home soil.
“You can call it 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 but it was sort of forced on us with injuries. And then Lorik was suspended,” Bruce said.
“We played very well at Tottenham and at home to Arsenal with that formation, but in hindsight maybe I should have started with 4-4-2 last week. But for those two games I was delighted so I decided to leave it alone.
“There is no doubt some individuals are better playing at home than away. It is a mentality. It has to be.
“I probably have more attacking players than defensive ones and the obvious missing link is Lee Cattermole.
“When he comes into the team we are different away from home. That is how important he is to us.
“But if you look from us downwards there are very few teams who have won more than one or two games. It is a difficult thing to do, win away from home in the Premier League.
“We are finding that out.”