Interview: Steve Harper on Steve Bruce and Sunderland's test at Hull

With a trip to East Yorkshire looming, is it time to reconsider Steve Bruce's time at Sunderland? Mark Douglas talks to Steve Harper about his current boss

Steve Harper at St James' Park to launch his charity testimonial match
Former Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper

For the large band of travelling Black Cats who will descend on Hull this Saturday, the mood is likely to be a riotious eruption of red and white pride tinged with a dash of rage aimed in the direction of the home dugout.

But here is a poser for Sunderland fans: should they leave room for re-evaluation in their reaction to their first glimpse of former boss Steve Bruce?

It is a serious question for Black Cats as they bask in the after-glow of a potentially transformative derby result. Bruce delivered the club a top ten finish (the previous year he had finished 13th) – a fact that he has not been shy about repeating in subsequent interviews, admittedly – and the way things have developed since proves how difficult that is.

To break it down, Bruce’s achievement in leading the Black Cats into the top ten was not a cause for much celebration at the time.

It was not that Sunderland fans expected more than that necessarily but they had been poised to do much better when a draining end-of-season slump eroded much of the optimism that had been created during the winter. His record post-February read ten defeats, three wins and one draw. Two more wins would have placed them seventh.

On the flip side, if they hadn’t beaten already-relegated West Ham on the final day of the campaign they would have been just four points clear of the relegation zone. Bruce doesn’t tend to mention that quite as much. But if we are going to quibble about Bruce’s failings, it is worth acknowledging that the club also made significant strides under his tutelage. Relegation was not an issue in either of his full seasons – not something you could say about his successors – and they played some excellent football.

Steve Bruce, manager of Hull City
Steve Bruce, manager of Hull City
 

And remember, Bruce had a fantastic team at the time. On November 14 Sunderland beat Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea 3-0, with goals from Asamoah Gyan, Darren Bent and Nedum Onuoha. It was a performance brimming with attacking intent and invention and the manager had played his part, setting up the team to trap Chelsea perfectly.

There are other positives to consider. Bruce was the man who brought Jack Colback into the fray after his successful loan spell at Ipswich, as well as giving Jordan Henderson his chance after his stint at Coventry. One of those players is now a regular in the first team; the other has graced international tournaments for his country.

Clearly, there was much to admire about Bruce’s approach in those first couple of years. He built bridges, phoned in favours from his extensive contacts books and – on the whole – delivered football that was better than what had gone before or since.

Those final months, however, curdled into an animosity which will be remembered much more keenly than those early, sunnier times.

Bruce’s two derby defeats, in particular the first one, saw his teams commit the cardinal sin of failing to summon the necessary fight.

He misjudged the mood when he chided Sunderland fans for their levels of expectancy – at one point making the misjudgement of accusing them of having ‘Champions League’ levels of aspiration – and the relationship was ripe for a messy separation by the end. It has to be acknowledged that many Black Cats found his subsequent accusations in interviews spiteful.

What counted against him, ultimately, was the significant churn of players. Two successive summers he was made to change the entire squad and there was little consistency about his summer recruitment drive.

Recruited to bring a Continental flavour to Sunderland’s transfer efforts, Bruce’s best signings were domestic. He brought in Darren Bent – a marquee signing that was meant to herald more big names heading to Wearside – and prised Lee Cattermole from Wigan. Lorik Cana also made an immediate impact.

Others did not go so well. Marcos Angeleri was not involved while Cristian Riveros and Paolo Da Silva were costly mistakes.

Whichever way it goes this weekend, one of his current charges believes that his past caught up with him. Hull goalkeeper Steve Harper feels his current manager is a fantastic student of the game who deserves more respect.

“Steve’s was a good record. If you look at what has happened since it stands up even better as well. It’s certainly a fixture he will have his eye on,” he said. “I would think he still hurts from that sacking.

“Certainly given the job he did, getting them to tenth in one season. The next year there was a difficult half dozen games, he’d lost his star striker.

“I think if he wasn’t a Newcastle fan as a kid he might not have got the sack and that is a shame.” Intriguingly, Harper feels that there may yet be the chance of Bruce returning to the North East if he continues to make a success of things at Hull.

As one of the most high-profile English managers of his era, Bruce famously turned down a chance to manage Newcastle. It may come up again, Harper reckons.

“There are similarities between Sir Bobby Robson and Steve Bruce. He has that human touch,” he said. “I think although we haven’t discussed it I think he probably regrets not taking that opportunity that presented itself. You can probably understand his reservations at the time, following on from such an iconic, legendary man as Sir Bobby.

“As time has gone he probably realises – especially with supporting the club as a boy – what a fantastic opportunity that was. Who knows in the future?”

Harper, incidentally, is more of a unifying figure around the North East than Bruce was. His recent charity game – which raised money for the Newcastle United Foundation – was a roaring success. “The feedback and the response I have had from people not just the friends and family – has been brilliant to the game,” he said.

“Not just round here, on my travels with Hull as well from everyone who made the effort to come. When we came up with the concept and wanted to have a night like that, it exceeded our wildest dreams, it really did. It really was an incredible night.

“We saw the fruits of all the effort that went into it and believe me, it was a lot of effort that went into it!”

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David Whetstone
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Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
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