A kind run of fixtures in the run-up to Christmas could make – or break – Sunderland’s season. Steve Brown reports.
STEVE Bruce admits he could scarcely have requested a kinder run through Sunderland’s next four fixtures, that home games against Fulham – today – Wigan and Blackburn, and a trip to Wolves punctuating the latter two, constitute near bankers.
However, he stresses, that is merely “on paper”. There is no complacency being countenanced here, no disrespect of rivals.
No short-termism either. While that ensuing quartet of matches could, of course, be more demanding, Bruce believes it is the next 10 or so which will shape his side’s season.
Then, only if the Black Cats – encouraged by recent improvements, buoyant displays at Anfield, the Emirates and Old Trafford and dissuaded by, Bruce insists, only one below-par showing at Norwich City – turn performances into results.
To that end, Bruce has set a loose target of between 15 and 17 points from Sunderland’s next 10 games, and is “convinced” that should they satisfy his demands they remain more than capable of making an impact in the Premier League.
He said: “The Premier League is quite unbelievable, every team has good players and the big teams have great players.
“So it is a tough division but one we are more than capable of making a challenge in. I am still convinced we will do that.
“This is a vital time with three out of four at home. We have had 11 games over four months and it has been stop-start.
“All of a sudden we have a run of games so I am glad it is over and we have a few months to work together and improve.
“This is a big opportunity. Can we set targets of 10 games where we get 15 points?
“If we do we will be bang on target. I don’t think it is just going to be the next three or four, it has to be up until Christmas and after.”
Bruce added: “We have eight games in January. It is quite remarkable, we have gone four months and we have played 11 games, and then we have eight in January.
“So by the end of the year, or the beginning of the new year, that is when you can have an assessment of it.
“It is not just the next two or three for us, it is the next 10. Can we go and get something like 16, 17 points – that has to be a target – and go into the second half of the season with 26, 27 points? That is going to be the task ahead.
“We have three or four where you look on paper and think it is a certainty, but it is never as easy as that and we must guard against that.
“We have to look at the next 10 or 11 games and we have a run of seven or eight in a period of four or five weeks over Christmas.
“When you have come through all of those we will know more but with the next three or four we could not have asked for a better run of fixtures and we have to try to pick up the points.”
Bruce went on: “Since the turn of the year you can look back on the reason why we have not done that.
“Losing Darren Bent and Danny Welbeck did not help, along with the continued absence of Fraizer Campbell, but the signs I am seeing now are far, far better.
“Although we have picked up a few little knocks, in the main the squad is still decent and the longer it plays and grows together the better it will become.
“Now we need to start stringing together a few results.
“We have played very well of late but we need a few results to back that up.”
Not, Bruce adds, that the players need much telling. They, like he, remain upbeat. He said: “I think they know. I only think we have played badly once, which was at Norwich.
“In the games we have played, we have shown a bit of character and something about us.
“We have been behind, we gave a great account of ourselves at Anfield, we did well at the Emirates and we did very well at Old Trafford, where we could have picked up something.
“The way we have played has encouraged me to say we are not far short. It will just take a little bit of time.
“As I sat and watched England at the weekend, our two centre-forwards this time last year were Welbeck and Bent, so to lose that talent and replace them is going to take time and some doing, but gradually we are getting there.”
Focusing on the first hurdle in the way, Bruce added: “Fulham are an established Premier League team who have done remarkably.
“I do not have the best of records against them but hopefully we can turn that around.”