Allardyce fears Bruce is suffering 'tremendous strain on his health'

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Sam Allardyce expressed concern about the effects of stress on Steve Bruce yesterday - but then promised to put duty above friendship by preventing Birmingham City from gaining the win over Bolton Wanderers tonight that would lift them out of the Premiership relegation zone.

Allardyce, whose side need to stop a run of two consecutive defeats to revive their hopes of qualifying for the Champions' League, feared that a "long, arduous season" had exacted a heavy toll on Bruce. "There has been a tremendous strain on Steve's health because he has had to contend with a constant barrage of criticism," the Bolton manager said.

"There has been more pressure put on Steve than there was on Mick McCarthy before he left Sunderland. And at West Bromwich Albion, Bryan Robson hasn't come under as much either. Perhaps it's the margin of the defeats. I don't know.

"What I do know is that the only thing that will help Steve is Birmingham beating Bolton. Good friend though he is, it's my responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen."

Birmingham slipped to second from bottom on Saturday despite drawing with champions Chelsea, which Allardyce said "must have felt like a win, because no one gave them a cat in hell's chance of getting anything from that one".

They will rise two places to 17th if they defeat Bolton, having been marooned in the bottom three since October, and Bruce is aware of the psychological fillip a victory would generate. "It would be a huge lift," the Birmingham manager said, "just at the right time."

Bruce's options will be enhanced by the availability of his leading scorer, the five-goal Jiri Jarosik, who was not allowed to face Chelsea under the terms of his loan deal. He also hopes to be able to call on David Dunn, Muzzy Izzet, Chris Sutton and Matthew Upson either tonight or at the weekend, a timely boost after Portsmouth's three wins in a row.

Their return would mean making changes to a side that performed with spirit and doggedness against Chelsea, when the inclusion of Olivier Tebily and Matthew Sadler took this season's defensive permutations to 32.

This time, however, Birmingham need to do more than grind out a point. Bruce must decide whether to retain a five-man midfield or try to provide better support for Emile Heskey in an attempt to end his team's six and a half hours without a goal.

For Bolton, Ricardo Gardner will return. The left-back missed the defeat by Manchester United through illness but has recovered, and Allardyce has no fresh injury problems.