Steve Bruce has been this way before.
In April Wigan were at the Stadium of Light and the Sunderland manager was under pressure. After gaining just a point from their previous nine matches, his Black Cats managed to win 4-2 and subsequently clawed their way comfortably clear of the relegation zone, finishing tenth in the Premier League table.
This afternoon Wigan are back on Wearside for another crucial contest that their former manager dare not lose. The marathon of the top-flight season is still a long way from the make or break stage but Sunderland are two points above the bottom three and have won just two home games out of 15 in league and cup since New Year's Day. The isolated "Bruce Out" cries that greeted the final whistle in the goalless draw against Fulham last Saturday would no doubt gather momentum if the Wearsiders failed to beat the Premier League's basement dwellers.
"The crowd as a whole have been behind us all the time," Bruce said yesterday. "They have seen the effort, the endeavour and the resilience in the team. We just need a big performance that will silence the critics."
Asked whether he felt under pressure, the Sunderland manager responded: "From what? If you do this job you are going to feel – if it's the right word – pressure. But I don't feel like that. It's more 'disappointed'. We could quite easily be four or five points better off. There are 12 teams separated by four points so every team around us is in a similar situation.
"This is a big game but I've played in big games, managed in big games. If we win, we go into the top 10 probably, then what's all the fuss about? If we lose it ... I don't contemplate that. I know we're capable of winning but it won't be easy. We must have a bit of patience, a bit of bottle and a bit of guile and we'll win the match. Simple as that."
The simple truth is that Sunderland need to hold their nerve and start burying their chances. They have found stability at the back and have yet to lose by more than a one-goal margin this season but the loss of Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan has left them short of clout on the goal-scoring front – even more so with Connor Wickham on the injured list.
Nicklas Bendtner has added a mobility to the forward line but has scored just twice. "The one [thing] that's missing from Nick's game is the mentality of a goalscorer," Bruce said. "We need him to acquire that and score us a few goals."
The one thing that will not be lacking today, in a 35,000-plus crowd, is the assumption of a home victory. "The expectation here is different to Wigan, to Fulham, to West Brom, Bolton, Birmingham," Bruce said. "We have huge support, which is quite remarkable and quite fabulous, but with that comes expectation, and that is why I came here.
"I could quite easily have stayed at Wigan and got no hassle but if I had not taken this job I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. Even through the dark times when you're getting crucified, there is something in me which is telling me, 'I am going to show them.'
"I just hope we can win tomorrow, win the next game, and we will be sitting eighth and everyone will be saying, 'What was the problem?' Up here everything is magnified, but there is never a time when I sit there and wish I had stayed at Wigan and had an easy job, a job for life."Reuse content