STEVE Bruce says his biggest challenge for Sunderland now is building a squad that can handle the North East’s desperate desire for football success.
But he believes he is creating a team which can thrive on the weight of expectation rather than crumble under it – with the confidence of star players holding the key to re-establishing the Wearsiders among the nation’s elite.
And despite the Black Cats suffering three successive defeats for the first time this season, Bruce will look forward to this weekend’s trip to Everton with high hopes as he bids to ensure the club does not drop below its current seventh place in the top flight.
The Sunderland manager was back behind his desk this morning after a sunshine break last week to recharge the batteries – his players also being given most of the week off to grab a quick break from the pressures of Premier League football.
And he is enthusiastic about the prospects of giving Sunderland fans a team they can be proud of after the club’s financial results last week showed the continued backing of Ellis Short in transforming the club’s fortunes.
He told the Echo: “The club has had fantastic support from the owner, but I think that’s exactly what it needs if it’s going to make that breakthrough where it becomes genuinely successful.
“There’s a pressure in the North East that’s created by the size of the crowds and that’s one of the challenges any manager faces when he comes here.
“I think that the only way to break that cycle is to bring in the sort of genuine, top quality players who can take it in their stride.
“I think that’s what has held so many North East teams of the past back – the fact that they’ve had the crowds, they’ve had the expectations, but it is very difficult to live up to that if the squad just isn’t good enough.
“And the challenge for managers in building a top club in the North East – that pressure is always on – whatever success you bring, the crowds are big enough to want and expect more.
“That’s quite a pressure, but it’s what makes the challenge so attractive.
“There are some clubs where the fanbase is such that just staying in the Premier League will see you hailed as a success.
“But in the big two in the North East, it has been very rare in the modern era that the quality of the teams has managed to reflect the quality of the size and passion of the home crowds.
“That’s why, I think, the North East has found it hard to create sustained success at the top of the table.
“But what a great challenge to take on.
“And I’ve got to say that I’m happy with the direction we’re going in at the moment where we’ve got someone like Asamoah Gyan at the club who was a World Player of the Year nominee.”
Bruce can also point to the likes of Champions League winner Sulley Muntari; Stephane Sessegnon – another Champions League player, as well as a host of internationals and World Cup players.
He said: “I don’t think there’s any denying that we’re getting a top quality squad here now, and you need that up here. You have to be able to handle the ball and not take notice of the crowd and we have players who have that confidence.
“The results might not have been the greatest of late, but we’ve had terrible injury problems which are now starting to ease and I know that, as a squad and as a club, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Much has been made of the fact that Sunderland have the youngest squad in the division, but Bruce – while acknowledging that inconsistency is the problem associated with youth – believes that the arrival of Sessegnon and Muntari, and the presence of older hands like Steed Malbranque and Bolo Zenden, will stand the squad in good stead.
“We’ve got a young team, but that tends to translate as enthusiasm rather than nerves,” he added.
“I’ve got confidence in my squad now and I want them to draw confidence in themselves.
“We have to realise what we’ve got now and, on top of that, we’ve got team spirit, a good bunch of players with real quality about them.
“I’m still very excited about the future.”