STEVE Bruce was faced with navigating a PR tightrope this week, when the inevitable line of questioning arose on his former shining light.
But without criticising or bemoaning Darren Bent’s decision to leave Wearside last January, Bruce drew a telling conclusion – the 27-year-old was on his way to becoming a Sunderland “Great”.
It was difficult to contradict the Sunderland boss, given Bent’s phenomenal return of 32 goals in 58 top-flight appearances once more permitted the Black Cats to boast one of the most feared strikers in the country.
Now, Bent can no longer claim to be ascending towards that hallowed plain occupied by messrs Phillips and Rowell.
Instead, the manner of January’s exit immediately plunged him into the dregs of supporter approval, alongside such hate figures as Don Hutchison and Lee Clark.
Bent will doubtless receive one of the most hostile welcomes in Stadium of Light history tomorrow.
Yet the England international is not alone in the Aston Villa line-up as one who will be jeered for their sins against Sunderland.
Neither the ex-loanee keeper, who has only ever tasted one defeat on Wearside, either in red and white, black and white or the clubs that followed, and the summer transfer target who priced himself out of his chosen move will receive hearty applause.
But tomorrow is not about Shay Given, Charles N’Zogbia or even Bent – despite the likelihood of Monday’s Echo saying otherwise if Villa prevail.
No, Villa’s trip to the Stadium of Light represents the moment when Sunderland can put their season back on the rails and vanquish much of the remaining negativity, which has not been completely erased by victory against an alarmingly poor Bolton side.
Three points against Alex McLeish’s men will take Sunderland’s tally to 12 from the first 10 games – matching their total from the same stage of last season, when Bruce had not been forced to so radically overhaul his squad.
Given the four games after next week’s trip to Old Trafford involve face-offs with strugglers Fulham, Wigan, Wolves and Blackburn, then the platform produced by victory tomorrow would have Sunderland looking upwards with some confidence.
Despite being two points better off than Sunderland, Villa shouldn’t hold any fears either, even if their cast of Black Cats old boys creates an ominous dread.
McLeish’s side have lost their last two, haven’t won away from home all season and have hardly set the world alight from an inviting run of early-season fixtures that has included just one meeting with a member of last season’s top six.
Like Bolton, Sunderland can also boast a healthy return against Villa – doing the double over Gerard Houllier’s men last season, with January’s success at Villa Park the last occasion the Black Cats notched back-to-back wins.
Villa have become draw specialists this season though and given that the last five meetings between the two clubs have produced a meagre six goals, it’s quite conceivable it could end all square.
Certainly, Villa lack the bygone matchwinners of Stewart Downing, Ashley Young or James Milner, with Bent too isolated this season and N’Zogbia failing to spark since his £9.5million summer switch from Wigan.
The return of Fabian Delph, who missed last weekend’s derby defeat to West Brom through illness, should help matters, with the creative former Leeds youngster set to replace the suspended Barry Bannan in midfield.
Former Sunderland loanee Alan Hutton is the other likely absentee after sustaining a deep cut above his right eye against the Baggies.
Arguably, Hutton shouldn’t have even been on the pitch by that point in the game after pole-axing Shane Long, with Carlos Cuellar on hand to replace the Scottish international tomorrow.
Sunderland’s team selection is far more straight-forward, with Bruce set to keep faith in those who earned the priceless victory at the Reebok Stadium.
Bruce will tinker slightly, with Stephane Sessegnon switching to the left in a straight swap with Seb Larsson – a ploy that significantly improved Sunderland in the second half last weekend.
Sessegnon will be urged to prey on the space available in the pocket behind frontmen Nicklas Bendtner and Connor Wickham, as the latter makes his first home start.
Wickham deserves another run-out, even if Bruce looks towards next week’s trip to the champions as an opportune moment to ease the 18-year-old out of the action.
The England U21 cap will be eager to prove he can develop into a striker as prolific as Bent, even if the latter hogs the headlines in the build-up.
But it’s the type of well-matched encounter where a Bent goal used to prove the difference for Sunderland.
Despite the frenzy surrounding Bent’s return, the absence of a like-minded poacher in Sunderland’s line-up may ultimately earn Villa a sixth draw in 10.