BULLISH Steve Bruce remains convinced he can turn Sunderland around and give supporters a team to be proud of – and believes that he retains the backing of Ellis Short despite his side’s recent slump.
With Sunderland in danger of being dragged into an unseemly scrap against relegation, Bruce has labelled this afternoon’s clash with Wigan a “must-win” game.
One victory in 14 matches has brought them hurtling to a crossroads and left Bruce himself under scrutiny.
However, the former Wigan manager remains adamant that his approach will yield rewards eventually.
Keeping things in perspective remains the order of the day at the Stadium of Light and a “supportive” chat with Sunderland’s publicity-shy owner Short this week confirmed in Corbridge-born Bruce’s mind that he is going about things the right way.
In the space of four days the season could take on a totally different complexion for the Wearsiders, but that would require beating both Wigan and Portsmouth.
Defeats in either game and the pressure will mount on the Black Cats – and their manager.
In a defiant pre-match Press conference, Bruce returned to the familiar theme of high expectations, and laid part of the blame for Sunderland’s struggles on a start that was “too good”.
The Black Cats boss believed talk of a European challenge then was premature – and also feels their demise now has been overstated.
“We got off to a wonderful start – maybe too good. It was like the North East, everyone’s expectation went whoosh,” Bruce said.
“From being a bottom-five team two years on the trot all of a sudden we were going for Europe.
“I tried to say ‘Woah, hold on a minute’ but that’s what it is. That’s why I’m here. I’m relishing the challenge even though it’s not easy at the minute.
“I always knew this would be a huge challenge. I think it’s been a huge challenge for whichever manager has sat in the seat.
“That was why I wanted to come, that’s why I wanted the challenge. I said to myself: ‘Can I turn this club around and make it what it should be?’
“It won’t be easy, it will take time – 23 players out is a huge turnaround for any club. But given the time , I know for a fact I will turn it around and I will give them a team they can associate with.
“I spoke to the owner on Wednesday, and I have to say he was very supportive. I’m sure the owner is aware of everything, but I’m also sure he won’t be enjoying watching his team not win in ten games, that’s for sure.”
Sunderland supporters have remained generally supportive of Bruce but there were signs of an erosion in the support on Monday as Stoke successfully repelled the Black Cats in a poor 0-0 draw.
“I can understand their frustration, we have lost momentum,” he said. “I’ve watched it back myself and it wasn’t very good. In fact, it was poor.
“However, we did keep a clean sheet and that is the only positive. Defensively, we looked better. There was a bit more resilience.
“Two or three weeks ago, I think Stoke might have blown us away.”
Bruce is prepared for criticism, and wearily accepts that some may use his Newcastle United-supporting past as a stick to beat him. “I’ll have to take all that crap, but let me tell you, I’ve got a skin like a rhinoceros,” said Bruce.
“It doesn’t worry me. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to get some stick.
“I won’t shy away from it, that’s for sure.”
He is looking to the players to “step up” and prove they can handle the pressure of playing for Sunderland.
“As I’ve said repeatedly, you have to be a big player to play here,” he said. “Some players wilt under that. Now’s the time to see that we don’t.
“When you’re playing well, everything goes okay. But now is the time to step forward when the pressure is on.”