Bruce wants bragging rights for season, not just derby day

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The Independent Football

Steve Bruce is adamant that maintaining Sunderland's recent league dominance over arch-rivals Newcastle rather than breaking his derby duck remains his paramount aim.

Sunderland open their home campaign against their near neighbours tomorrow, having taken just a single point from the Magpies last season and suffered an embarrassing 5-1 drubbing on Tyneside into the bargain.

Bruce classes that defeat at St James' Park as the most humiliating of a career which extends beyond 30 years, and hopes of revenge were dashed when it took a last-gasp Asamoah Gyan equaliser to deny Alan Pardew's men a double in the return at the Stadium of Light.

Asked what a win would mean to him, Tyneside-born Bruce, whose side finished 10th in the Premier League last season, two places better off than Newcastle, said: "I know what it means to a lot of supporters. The big thing for me is that we finished above them for the third time in a row, which hasn't happened for a long, long time, and our aim is to finish on top of them again.

"As long as I am the Sunderland manager, the one thing I want to do is finish above them, and I am sure Alan Pardew is the same. It helps if you win a derby, of course it does, but it's not the be-all and end-all – but I know to some supporters, it is. 'No matter where you finish, as long as you beat Newcastle...' will be some people's take on it. It certainly isn't mine."

Last season's Hallowe'en horror show at St James' Park prompted Bruce to look at himself as well as his players and he admits, in hindsight, there was not enough experience in his side to handle the white heat of derby day.

It is not a mistake he will make this time around, with summer signings Wes Brown and John O'Shea – the Republic of Ireland international is rated at 50-50 to make his competitive debut after returning to training following a hamstring injury – having seen and done it all at the highest level with their former club Manchester United and their respective countries.

Bruce said: "It [the 5-1 defeat] was probably the worst result I have ever had in 30 years in the game, I can't really remember a humiliation like that. But you learn from the experience and handle it and try to come out fighting, and two weeks later you have your best result when we beat Chelsea 3-0.

"Last year, I made a mistake. There were maybe too many with not enough experience. I have got to take my proportion of the blame too. We will make sure the experience in the team on Saturday will be fine. A lot of them have handled the situation before, like John O'Shea and Wes Brown, it's not going to faze them for a start. They have played in big games, European Cup finals, so they will handle the occasion."

Bruce pleaded with both sets of fans not to spoil the day after trouble at both fixtures last season. "That's what the derby is all about, the rivalry – but let's make sure it stays that way and there is none of the ugliness we witnessed last year," he said. "It is a ferocious atmosphere, but it has got to be a rivalry rather than a hatred."

Pardew has warned Sunderland in the build-up to the derby confrontation not to be taken in by the furore surrounding Newcastle's controversial midfielder Joey Barton.

The 28-year-old found himself the centre of attention once again last weekend when he was stamped on by the Arsenal midfielder Alex Song and then slapped by striker Gervinho. But Pardew, who included transfer-listed Barton in the team last Saturday only after receiving assurances about his focus, will have no qualms about throwing him in once again at the Stadium of Light.

The manager said: "In a game plan, it would get a mention, if I am honest. Joey has been in the press a fair bit this week – more than Joey would have liked and more than I would have liked – but the other thing they will be focusing on is he is a very good player, of course, and they need to stop him.

"Probably that is more of a worry to Steve [Bruce], I should think," Pardew added.