Bent exit halted Bruce's progress
When Sunderland chairman Ellis Short was approached by a disgruntled supporter on his way out of The Stadium of Light after Saturday’s defeat to Wigan Athletic, feelings were mutual.
“We’re not happy” announced the fan, who was met with a brisk response from the American billionaire as he said: “And do you think I am?”
If Sunderland manager Steve Bruce feared his tenure on Wearside was in deep trouble, that simple message from the man who took a more hands-on role at his club in October will have confirmed it.
Short’s unhappiness led him to sack Bruce on Wednesday night and complete a remarkable fall from grace after the promise of his early work at Sunderland.
After a string of poor results Sunderland chairman Ellis Short calls time on Steve Bruce's (pic) tenure at the Stadium of Light. PHOTO: Getty
Bruce’s plan for Sunderland was progressing perfectly at the turn of the year – sixth in the Premier League and harbouring genuine hopes of bringing European football back to Wearside.
Three wins and a draw at the start of 2011 only added to the optimism. Then, in the time it took Aston Villa to turn leading scorer Darren Bent’s head and conclude a club record £24m deal, Bruce saw it all turn to dust.
He was badly hurt at the manner of Bent’s departure, reserving most of his anger for then Villa manager Gerard Houllier for failing to register his interest via a phone call.
He also knew that the departure of a goalscorer of Bent’s calibre would not only rob Sunderland of their cutting edge, but also a player whose pace was pivotal to their style.
If there was a defining day in Bruce’s time at The Stadium of Light, it was the day Bent left for Villa.
The momentum Bruce had carefully built up since his arrival from Wigan in the summer of 2009 came to a halt.
Sunderland went into an almost instant decline that brought eight defeats in nine games and the threat of relegation until a late recovery earned a respectable 10th place.
Bruce spent his summer effectively starting again by making 10 new signings, including former Manchester United old boys John O’Shea and Wes Brown along with Ipswich Town’s teenage striking prodigy Connor Wickham.
He was unable to land his main target Charles N’Zogbia, who joined Aston Villa, but the scale of Bruce’s reinvestment was regarded as a generous gesture of faith from Short.
Fatally for Bruce, the malaise of last season carried over into this and only two wins from Sunderland's first 13 games sealed his fate, the final blow being dealt with Wigan’s last-minute winner at the Stadium of Light on Saturday that unleashed a torrent of supporters’ venom in the direction of the manager.
Bruce’s Tyneside roots were revisited among the criticism and it was perhaps inevitable that the boyhood Newcastle United fan would be cut little slack when things went wrong.
The failure of Bruce’s signings to make a significant impact did not help his cause.
Wickham showed promise before getting injured, but O’Shea and Brown have not come off while Craig Gardner has shown no signs of justifying the £5m paid to Birmingham City in the summer.
Attempts to replace Bent’s goals have failed, with loan signings Nicklas Bendtner and South Korean Ji Dong-Won unable to provide a threat.
Short’s decision to assume the role of chairman as Bruce’s closest ally Niall Quinn was handed an “international development” brief was seen as an ominous sign for the manager.
The Dallas-based businessman was keen to support Bruce, but results and the toxic terrace reaction on Saturday finally forced his hand.
Former Sunderland defender Michael Gray told BBC Sport he sympathised with the sacked Bruce but the brutal reality of bad results left Short in a position where he had to act.
He said: "Wigan were not in the best of form themselves and as a manager, with the players Sunderland have brought in, these are the type of games Steve needed to be winning.
“I wasn’t at the game on Saturday but I heard the abuse aimed at Steve was getting a little bit too personal. It’s OK to shout at the team when things aren’t going too well but sometimes it can go a bit too far.”
But Gray added: “I think you actually have to give the board a lot of credit because they backed Steve in the summer when he brought in 10 new players but they still haven’t replaced Darren Bent and then they let Asamoah Gyan go, which was a big surprise. He had plenty of time to bring in the players he wanted.
“They have gone through the gelling together period. We are 13 games into the new Premier League season and expectations were probably for a place in the top 10. We know managers live or die by results and Steve hasn’t been getting them.
“It’s probably fair to say that things have gone downhill since Darren Bent left. They were in a fantastic position in the top six playing entertaining football and everyone, including myself, was talking about European football.
“Darren Bent then left the football club and we went into a decline losing eight games out of nine. We could barely buy a point let alone a win.
“We scraped it back together and finished 10th, but maybe that papered over the cracks. Sunderland started this season with a new squad but it is all about results and they have not been coming.
"Steve will be the first to admit he knew he had to get results and he hasn’t been getting good ones often enough. The writing was on the wall after the Wigan game – and losing from a winning position in the manner they did only made things worse.”
Now Short and Sunderland’s board must seek out Bruce’s successor with the offer of untapped potential, an impressive stadium waiting to be filled and the opportunity to fire the passions of a fervent football region.
Bruce tried and failed to revive Sunderland. And, when he looks back on his time at The Stadium of Light, he may reflect on Bent’s departure to Aston Villa as the day his dreams died.