SO highly charged are the emotions aroused in Sunderland fans by the mere mention of Steve Bruce’s name at the moment that it seems pointless trying to offer a balanced evaluation of the man right now.
Any praise of the Tynesider whatsoever is likely to be greeted with criticism and condemnation from a section of supporters who will see no good in his time on Wearside and have a loathing of him bordering on the irrational.
Such hatred has not been witnessed at Sunderland since the dying days of Peter Reid’s time at the club – ironically the last manager to steer the club to a top 10 finish – who was also hounded out.
The failings and merit of Bruce as a manager can, and will, be debated endlessly elsewhere over the next few days.
All I can do is speak as I find and say that in my dealings with him, I found him a decent man, passionate about the challenge of helping Sunderland Football Club realise its full potential.
He was certainly the most amiable and approachable of managers to deal with.
He was incredibly open and honest with the media – often too much for his own good – and I had an excellent working relationship with him.
It wasn’t always cosy.
He cited my match report of this season’s derby game as the most damaging of all and believed it was the one which most turned fans against him.
But if that was true, then I can take comfort from the fact that it wasn’t one match report which did for him.
Far more influential than that, was a succession of bad results, bad performances, the loss of key players and – although it is not fashionable to say this – the sheer bad luck Sunderland had at times, like the Fulham and Wigan performances, which both should have yielded home victories but ended with only one point being taken from six.
In the end there could be no arguing with his dismissal, based on the results and performances over the course of 2011.
But my view is that it is just sad that a man whose heart was in the right place, who dealt with criticism with dignity and who has left the club with a far, far better squad than he inherited should have left the club in such regrettable circumstances.
For the effort that he put in, for the fact that he was never able to spend the sort of money his predecessor Roy Keane did and for the misfortune that every time he was building something at Sunderland it unravelled because of circumstances beyond his control, he deserved a better end.
But the important thing now is that Sunderland get the succession right.
The phrase “be careful what you wish for” springs to mind, with the current situation eerily similar to the one in which Peter Reid was controversially dismissed.
Like Bruce, Reid was on the receiving end of huge criticism from the terraces – in the Liverpudlian’s case driven by continual nightly radio attacks on him personally.
Reid was sacked after collecting eight points from the club’s first nine games. His penultimate game was a 7-1 Carling Cup win over Cambridge United and when he was dismissed his side were still outside the relegation zone.
Bruce has been sacked after collecting 11 points from 13 games. This week the Reserves notched a 7-0 win. His first team is currently outside the relegation zone.
The key point to note is that when Reid was sacked, those who wanted him sacked celebrated wildly.
But Howard Wilkinson replaced him – arguably the right man, but put in charge of the wrong squad – and Sunderland imploded.
When Mick McCarthy became the club’s third manager that season – Reid’s original choice as an appropriate successor – things had gone too far and he lost all eight of his games in charge, the club being relegated with a then-record low 19 points total.
You can’t see lightning striking twice, given the funding, resources and experience Sunderland can call on these days.
But the lesson is there to be learned.
If Bruce was the problem, then sacking him is only half the solution.
Sunderland need to find someone who can connect with the fans, bring out the best in the players and take the club in a new and positive direction.
In getting rid of Bruce, owner Ellis Short has made a bold and decisive move. But his next move is much, much more important.