WHEN thousands launched into a venomous chorus of “Fat Geordie b*****d get out of our club” at the Stadium of Light last weekend, there was no way back for Steve Bruce.
It was the knock-out blow to Bruce’s hopes of remaining in the Sunderland hot seat, even if privately he still remained doggedly determined to secure the second successive top-half finish earmarked during a hectic summer.
But the beginning of the end for Bruce wasn’t when Franco Di Santo punished Sunderland’s defensive calamity to send a rag-bag Wigan side into delirium.
The fatal wound was dealt three months earlier when Bruce was unable to finally relinquish his tag as the derby jinx.
To outsiders, the notion of losing one game and then coming under the full glare of the supporters’ spotlight is ludicrous, even if it is against the fiercest of local rivals.
Ordinarily, that would apply to Sunderland. Both successful predecessors Peter Reid and Roy Keane suffered damaging defeats to Newcastle United yet went on to banish those memories in the goodness of time.
They enjoyed several advantages which never applied to Bruce though.
Neither were from Tyneside, both went on to beat the Magpies and, most crucially, never suffered the humiliation of the heaviest defeat against Sunderland’s arch-rivals in 54 years.
Bruce’s black and white heritage has been over-played in recent weeks, perhaps inevitably with the chanting delivered towards the 50-year-old last weekend.
But other than for the most blinkered, the Geordie moniker was only ever a label to beat Bruce over the head with when times were troubled.
Nevertheless, Bruce needed a win against Newcastle to truly ingratiate himself on Wearside, not the ignominy of a shambolic 5-1 drubbing.
Some on the terraces would have had Bruce out of the door immediately after that Halloween horror show.
But the more level-headed had seen the encouraging signs from the early exchanges of the campaign and gave Bruce’s side some leeway – an opportunity they eagerly took with seven points from the subsequent three testing tussles against Stoke, Spurs and Chelsea.
Bruce knew though that, further along the line, he needed to make amends for his St James’s nightmare.
It didn’t happen in January, when Sunderland again froze and were only spared double derby defeat with Asamoah Gyan’s fortuitous stoppage time leveller. But August’s premature meeting with the Magpies in the opening home game of the season was seen as the moment where Sunderland HAD to make amends.
Sunderland supporters, players and manager all thought it would be third time lucky.
Even Newcastle fans headed to Wearside expecting their red and white cousins to be celebrating.
Alan Pardew’s side had endured a tumultuous summer consisting of a farcical pre-season tour, the tantrums of Joey Barton and the recruitment of hitherto unknowns from across the Channel.
In contrast, Sunderland spent pre-season at a made-to-measure German base and appeared to have recruited astutely – bringing in proven Premier League players, plus one of the hottest-rated striking prospects in the country.
Defeat to a well-organised, yet minimally threatening Newcastle side was one derby defeat too far for Bruce and the beginning of the end for him.
His relationship with supporters deteriorated dramatically and began on a downward trajectory which culminated in the ugly scenes last weekend.
Bruce complained of “mass hysteria” in the reaction that followed in the pubs and the papers and denounced the out-of-kilter expectations in an area of football, deprived of sustained success for decades.
The words didn’t go down well, particularly on the back of a calendar year which had hardly been glittering with victories.
But it wasn’t just on the terraces that the derby loss sowed its poisonous seed.
On the field, Sunderland looked shell-shocked both at the defeat and the fall-out from the result, immediately vanquishing any momentum gained from a productive if not particularly free-scoring pre-season.
Unlike the 5-1 derby loss, there was to be no reaction in terms of results.
Sunderland crashed out of the Carling Cup – arguably destroying two of the season’s main goals in the space of a few days – and, other than a convincing victory over a hapless Stoke side, toiled in the games that followed.
The sulking of Gyan didn’t help Bruce’s cause and there was more than a touch of panic surrounding his deadline-busting pursuit of a striker to compete with the Ghanaian.
Gyan’s get-rich-quick departure, after the transfer window had passed, deprived Sunderland of even more goals in a side still trying to bail out the water from the leaks sprung by the loss of Danny Welbeck and Darren Bent.
Sunderland’s chronic lack of a penalty box predator was acutely felt against both Fulham and Wigan – two games in which the Black Cats would have surely triumphed had Bent still been in their ranks.
Bruce cannot take the blame for Bent’s departure, yet he had to shoulder the responsibility for the results in the last two games for not landing anyone capable of coming alive in the area.
The now former Sunderland boss claimed away from the microphones that he would be content with seven points from the succession of games against strugglers Fulham, Wigan, Wolves and Blackburn.
A point against Fulham was bad enough for supporters, yet it would not be the end of the world, providing Sunderland made amends against Wigan.
Sunderland’s failure to better a Latics side with just two away goals to their name all season proved sufficiently infuriating for the bulk of fans who had been sitting on the fence regarding their opinion of Bruce.
Suddenly, the vocal minority became the vocal majority and Bruce’s position was all but untenable – 150,000 votes were cast in an Echo poll earlier in the week on his future.
Vitriol reserved by Newcastle fans for Mike Ashley only added to the sense of resentment towards Bruce.
Noises from inside the club suggested it was more a case of when, rather than if, Bruce would be dismissed, although the timing remained an unknown given Ellis Short’s privacy.
Short has never been in the position of having to sack a manager during his tenure of ownership, yet he showed the necessary ruthlessness yesterday afternoon to put a wounded animal out of its misery.
Waiting until Wednesday suggests Short is not far away from lining up a successor to Bruce, given the ex-Wigan boss had continued to take charge of training as normal and made a point of being seen at both the reserves and youth team’s outings on Wednesday.
Short had to follow the wishes of his public though, given the dwindling crowds and the potential for a nuclear reaction if Bruce was still in charge against Blackburn in 10 days time.
For his players, Bruce remained a popular figure, a motivator to complement the tactical awareness of number two and now caretaker boss Eric Black.
Likewise, in the media, Bruce was not lacking in friends thanks to his amicable disposition and willingness to go out of his way to help reporters.
But despite the riches which have engulfed the game, fans still remain its lifeblood and their message was made startlingly clear last weekend.
They said it was time for Bruce to go and it was impossible for Short to argue.