Chris Young: Too many changes hurt Bruce at Sunderland

Steve Bruce recruited, but then lost too many key players.
Steve Bruce recruited, but then lost too many key players.
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THE EVOLVING bile towards Steve Bruce reached the stage where little the Sunderland boss said escaped without censure.

It’s one of the side effects of failure on the pitch that pledges of “turning things around” from managers or players invariably result in mockery.

Even Bruce’s reminders about the crowning moment of his reign, a first 10th placed finish in a decade, has begun to grate on some supporters, given a paltry return of two wins in the current campaign.

Yet the top-half stigma is relevant, particularly as the circumstances surrounding Sunderland’s struggles this season bear striking resemblance to the previous top 10 incumbent in the dug-out.

There is truth to Bruce’s wearisome mantra that finishing in the top half leads to increased expectations.

But the on-field evidence ultimately sways opinion and both Peter Reid and now Bruce suffered from performances becoming stale, predictable and one-dimensional.

Reid’s side lacked the same spark and incisiveness in his final full season in charge in 2001-02, and were a far cry from the glorious highs previously under the Scouser.

The pivotal supply lines from the flanks dried up and Sunderland’s decline from seventh to 17th ultimately culminated in Reid’s dismissal nine games into the following season.

But Sunderland’s shortcomings 10 years ago can easily be applied to the Black Cats in 2011-12.

In an end-of-season Football Echo review following the final day safety-clinching draw with Derby County, colleague Graeme Anderson wrote: “No matter what combination Reid used, his side looked short of pace, ideas and confidence”.

Sound familiar?

But why have two successful Sunderland teams, buoyant from flirting with the Premier League’s higher echelons, slumped so dramatically and so swiftly?

When you delve into the fine detail, the reason is stunningly straightforward – the loss of key players and an inability to replace them with cogs capable of performing a similar task in the machinery.

In 01-02, the mainstays of Sunderland’s success under Reid – Chris Makin, Nicky Summerbee, Alex Rae, Danny Dichio and Don Hutchison (albeit for only one season) – had all departed within the previous six months, while Niall Quinn’s star was noticeably on the wane.

In their place came Nicolas Medina, Lilian Laslandes, Bernt Haas, Claudio Reyna, Jason McAteer and Joachim Bjorklund.

The first three were admittedly flops. But the trio of Reyna, McAteer and Bjorklund had pedigree – they just couldn’t cross a ball like Summerbee, tackle like Makin or score goals from midfield like Hutchison.

Likewise, Sunderland have lost too many influential figures since the dawn of 2011, particularly up front.

Sunderland would arguably have maintained their momentum if the exits had been restricted to Bolo Zenden, Nedum Onuoha and Jordan Henderson.

But when the goals of Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan were removed, the whole blueprint for success has to be ripped up and re-drawn.

Reid wasn’t able to galvanise his new-look side and this season, fresh-faced Sunderland have persistently flirted with victory before falling short by the final whistle.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from comparing Reid and Bruce though, it is that a new incumbent in the dug-out doesn’t necessarily bring a magic wand.