STEVE Bruce insists Sunderland's season is only now about to begin, believing its central third will define their Premier League campaign.
And seeking both patience and potency in front of goal, the Black Cats boss says his side can cope with near-incomparable expectation created by a “unique” fanbase to hand those supporters “something to shout about”.
Sunderland were held to a goalless stalemate against Fulham at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, despite twice hitting the crossbar and seeing Stephane Sessegnon’s late goalbound effort saved by Mark Schwarzer.
Given that the fixture was earmarked by Bruce himself as one of four – along with the forthcoming visits of Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers, separated by a trip to Wolves – from which his side should claim points, failure to win has cranked up the pressure on those remaining matches.
But Bruce is looking further ahead still, to Christmas and beyond as a spell during which Sunderland must embark on a positive chain of results if something is to be salvaged from their disappointing start to the campaign.
“I think the season’s just about to start,” Bruce said.
“We’ve had so many disruptions with internationals. I know we’ve played 12 games but we’ve got something like 10 or 12 games in the next six or seven weeks, which will define our season.
“We hope that we can still improve. I still think there have been improvements. Certainly defensively we’re far, far better than we’ve ever been.
“We’ve just got to find that little bit up front that makes the difference.” He added: “Fulham have got some good players. They’ve got a fantastic goalkeeper and really good centre-backs.
“They’ve got an England centre forward. They’ve got good players everywhere. So do Wigan.
“So we need a bit of patience. But we need to have a result. And that’s what the Premier League is.
“In the Premier League, if you look I think three points separate 12 teams.
“There’s an expectation and a pressure if you like, but one where we can look forward to the challenge of it and win a match. We’re capable of it.
“Listen, they come in their thousands which creates the pressure. Let’s make no mistake, there’s more pressure here than at a Bolton or a Blackburn or a Fulham or a Wigan – because the support we have is quite unique.
“It’s fantastic, and it’s up to us to give them something to shout about at home.
“For too long we’ve had days like Saturday. We’ve done all right but not quite got the win. So we need to change that around.”
Reflecting on Sessegnon’s added-time chance, Bruce added: “Well I thought that was it.
“From where I was sitting, when it takes that deflection (off Philippe Senderos), I think it’s in and we go away 1-0, we’re up in the top 10 and all of a sudden the little feelgood factor comes around.
“We’ll just have to wait another week and make sure we beat Wigan, or try our best to beat Wigan and move on.”
Meanwhile, Bruce confirmed that with goals at a premium, he remains committed to signing a new striker in the January transfer window.
“It’s the one thing that we’ve got to address, we know that,” he said.
“But it’s very difficult because for me that’s where we were better than the other 12 teams who I’m in the mix with.
“We had Danny Welbeck, Asamoah Gyan, Darren Bent, Fraizer Campbell – that’s arguably as good as this club’s ever had and unfortunately, for one reason and another, we’ve lost them.
“So we’ll do our utmost to keep searching and trying to find the right one. Of course we will. That’s my job and that’s our job, to move forward.”