STEVE Bruce says the biggest challenge facing him at Sunderland is dealing with the weight of expectation from supporters, writes GRAEME ANDERSON.
The Black Cats’ boss confesses to being bewildered at the early-season pressure he finds himself and his players under, especially considering the club is in lower mid-table rather than in the relegation zone.
And he fears that those expectations could yet prove to be his toughest opponent as he works to improve the club’s fortunes.
“There’s a huge, big expectation here – an expectation that you would expect from a Champions League side,” he claimed in the wake of sporadic shouts of “Bruce out” when Sunderland shipped two early goals against West Brom on Saturday.
“I don’t know where it comes from – probably the size of the crowd and the passion of the place itself.
“But Sunderland were 10th last year – only the third time in 50 years they’ve finished that high – so I don’t know where I’m going too far wrong.
“It’s not as if we’ve fallen away – not as if we’ve been qualifying for the Champions League year in, year out.”
His new signings, too, have been taken by surprise at the fans’ hunger for success.
“There’s still a couple of them scratching their heads about the club and realising what it is all about playing up here,” said the manager.
“I think the Birmingham boys, in particular, have been surprised at the expectations, but, whatever the pressures, I’m determined that I won’t let it distract me from what I’m trying to achieve here.”
He cited the presence of Nicklas Bendtner at the Stadium of Light as tangible proof that Sunderland are growing as a club and heading in the right direction.
For the second game in a row, the on-loan Arsenal man was the best player on the pitch and Bruce pointed out: “We’re fortunate he chose to come here.
“Two or three years ago, with the clubs that came in for him, I don’t think we would have got Nicklas.
“There were five or six clubs he could have gone to in the transfer window, but he chose us.”
Now Bruce plans to do for Bendtner, what he did for Danny Welbeck last season – bring his full talent to the fore.
“Nicklas has got all the classic qualities of a top player, but occasionally he can’t help showing off and showing he’s the best player on the pitch.
“We need him to get that element out of his game and allow him to be as good as he can be.
“And I think we’ll do that – I think we started to see the best of him against West Brom.
“He’s a larger than life character, full of confidence and I think Sunderland fans will love him.
“The challenge for me will be can we keep him here? Can we buy Bendtner?
“Because I believe that, like Danny Welbeck, he’ll improve when he plays more and more games in his preferred position.”