STEVE Bruce gave Sunderland’s game against West Brom the same significance as a cup final in the pre-match build-up.
And in the wake of Saturday’s 3-2 defeat he could not have looked any more crushed and crestfallen had he actually lost out on silverware.
This defeat hurt Bruce badly – he took it personally, his tone subdued in the post-match inquest as he pondered yet another bad day at the office.
“It is a crying shame, in terms of what has happened in the last eight games compared to the previous 24 which had given us a chance of playing in Europe,” sighed Bruce (pictured).
“We have to rally around now, my staff and my players because it is just not happening for us at the moment.
“I never thought we would be in the bottom end at this stage of the season, but we are where we are and we have to look to ourselves and turn it around.”
For the second time in consecutive home games, injuries forced two first-half substitutions, throwing Sunderland’s plans into disarray and Bruce saw that as a critical factor.
“I’m beginning to sound like a long playing record, but that sums up our last few weeks,” he added. “We are struggling to keep people on the pitch, playing people who are half-fit, trying to keep then on the pitch.
“It’s a big problem for us and one we are going to have to try to resolve.”
Injuries did not help, but self-belief was arguably the bigger problem, and Bruce admitted he hoped his side going ahead twice would have been sufficient to boost spirits.
“Confidence is an unbelievable thing,” he conceded. “You could see it in West Brom – a few weeks ago they had none, now they have it in abundance.
“The Phil Bardsley goal, you would have thought, would have given everyone a lift, but I had to make a change at half-time and I don’t want to make excuses, but it hasn’t helped us.
“It does disrupt you and affect what you set out to do all week and, for a spell in the second half, we just fell apart.”