EVER since boarding the managerial helter-skelter at Bramall Lane, Steve Bruce has sought the advice of mentor Sir Alex Ferguson.
Even after 10 years in the dug-out at the highest level, Bruce persists with his reverential treatment of Ferguson and continues to seek his former Manchester United mentor’s opinion.
But in the build-up to Ferguson’s 25th year anniversary, Bruce is the one with words of counsel to offer. For few have suffered the devastating repercussions of a painful derby defeat more than Bruce.
August’s 1-0 loss to the Magpies sent Sunderland on a steep downward spiral, which they are only now beginning to recover from, while the Halloween 5-1 loss at St James’s Park will forever haunt Bruce.
Ferguson has been on the receiving end at City’s hands before – the 1989 5-1 “Maine Road Massacre” and Kevin Keegan’s 2004 4-1 success in the first derby at Eastlands.
But none will have matched the piercing wound of last month’s 6-1 home spanking from the neighbours, particularly in a match seen as the barometer of City’s title ambitions.
Okay, United were hamstrung by the dismissal of Jonny Evans, yet if City had reached double figures, the hosts could hardly have complained.
Sunderland will be pinpointed as the whipping boys to earn some Old Trafford retribution tomorrow and it will take a supreme act of party-pooping to spoil Ferguson’s plaudit-packed celebrations.
Under Bruce though, the Black Cats have risen to the challenge against United – somehow unable to find a winner in last year’s Stadium of Light stalemate and being denied a first Old Trafford success in 41 years after Anton Ferdinand’s late own goal in 2009.
Sunderland will need to raise themselves again tomorrow against a side who have hardly struggled for goals this season with 27 in the opening 10 League games.
The loss of Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs, Ashley Young and potentially Anderson will boost Sunderland’s cause, although United have a sufficient array of attacking depth to cause Bruce a suitable bout of insomnia – none more so than Danny Welbeck.
Perhaps only now, with Welbeck a fixture in the starting XI in both the Premier and Champions League, is it dawning just what a prospect Sunderland had on their hands last season.
The 20-year-old may have looked woefully raw during the opening games of his loan spell on Wearside, but for two months at the midway point of the campaign, he was arguably the most elusive striker in the top flight.
Either as an orthodox frontman or out wide, as he was used in United’s win at Everton last weekend, the England striker is a major threat to his old club tomorrow, especially in tandem with Nani, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney.
Sunderland’s backline must strike the balance between sitting sufficiently deep to avoid being out-paced in behind and not sitting so deep that they are overwhelmed by pressure, as was the case in the final 20 minutes against Aston Villa last weekend.
The changes to the back four and goalkeeper shouldn’t disrupt matters too much though.
Keiren Westwood will doubtless have to enjoy a fruitful full debut if Sunderland are to boast something for their efforts, but the former Manchester City trainee has the pedigree at Championship and international level to cope with the Old Trafford cauldron.
Sunderland must also ensure the pressure is eased by threatening at the other end.
Although the return of Nemanja Vidic has helped proceedings, United have not been at their most resolute this season.
Sunderland must provide a threat on the counter-attack when United’s full-backs bomb forward relentlessly, which makes Bruce’s team selection all the more intriguing.
Doubtless, the Black Cats will adopt a more defensive formation than an orthodox 4-4-2, with common expectation suggesting that Lee Cattermole will return at the expense of off-the-mark Connor Wickham.
But Bruce may be tempted to string a surprise, with Wickham or Bendtner simply handed a wide-left role while Stephane Sessegnon is despatched in a more central berth as the most attacking of a midfield trio.
That would certainly please those who berated Bruce for a negatively-perceived formation in Sunderland’s defeat at Arsenal three weeks ago.
Barring catastrophe though, this is not a game where Bruce will be mercilessly chastised if Sunderland come up short.
The subsequent four games against Fulham, Wigan, Wolves and Blackburn are all more telling for the Black Cats.
This one is just about the outside chance of a United old boy haunting the United maestro.
Verdict: Home win