As one wag put it on Twitter last night, “Steve Kean is so incompetent that he can’t even win the sack race”. It was, however, another Steve who did manage to stumble over this unwanted finishing line ahead of the perpetually embattled Blackburn Rovers manager. Steve Bruce became the first Premier League manager to lose his job for this season following his departure from Sunderland late yesterday afternoon, and recent events meant that this was no great surprise. The knives had been drawn for Bruce since before his side’s defeat in the League Cup at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion in September, but the et tu Bruté moment didn’t come until last weekend, with the club’s home defeat in the Premier League at the hands of the previously jettisoned Wigan Athletic.
The writing was on the wall for Bruce with the testy comments of the club’s owner, Ellis Short, after the Wigan match. Short suggested that we would know more about Bruce’s fate within forty-eight hours. It is, perhaps, proper that a decision as game-shifting as that of whether to replace the manager or not should be taken after a period of consultation, but it seemed from that moment on as Bruce’s days in the Premier League could only be numbered and the question of why or how he hung on for that extra couple of days is a curious one. Sunderland supporters have become wearyingly familiar with the managerial merry-go-round over the last few years, so this particular parting of company will come as little surprise to many – and a blessed relief to most – but the immediate question that now should be asked us that of who replaces him and how the team that Bruce built can be tweaked or, if required, completely overhauled in order to manage safety for the end of another season during which the newly promoted clubs are, for now at least, performing well above the lazier end of the pre-season prediction scale and the bottom half of the table is already starting to take on a somewhat congested look.
As time progresses, certain fashions come to look dated. Bruce, the tracksuit-clad fighter with little interest in the tactical complexities of modern Premier League football came to look increasingly out of date during the last couple of years or so, and a scattergun approach to the transfer market hardly seemed to help matters either. In mitigation, there were times at which he was sinned against – the alarming arrest of Titus Bramble, the Asamoah Gyan saga or Darren Bent’s apparent desire to be somewhere, anywhere but The Stadium Of Light, for example – but it is not difficult to imagine a world in which a different manager might have been able to handle these conflagrations in a manner that would prevent the team from listing on the pitch. We may never get to learn the full story of what went on behind the scenes at the club – if modern football remains good at one thing, then it remains good at keeping its dirtiest linen well hidden from the public view – but the ultimate bottom line fact, that Sunderland AFC was being managed by an increasingly anachronistic figure who was unable to deliver results on the pitch, was more than apparent to anybody that watched his team this season.
The inevitable next question is that of who replaces him, and the press line in that thorny subject this morning seems to be that Ellis Short is following the tried and tested route of The Premier League Football Club New Managers List 101, with Mark Hughes and Martin O’Neill at its head. Both are able choices, though both are flawed in their own ways. This shortlist seems to be wheeled out every time a manager is in peril or has departed from a club, but there still is a chance of a surprise appointment (how likely might it be that some more enterprising Blackburn supporters have already sent in a CV and covering letter on behalf of Steve Kean, for example?), and we should never underestimate the ability of football club owners to throw in a curve ball when it comes to a new appointment. For now, though, Hughes and O’Neill will be the favourites with the bookmakers, but the club would be well advised to take its time over any new appointment – the phrase “marry in haste, repent at leisure” doesn’t only apply to nuptual vows.
With just seven points seperating nineteenth placed Wigan Athletic and eighth-placed Aston Villa, the three relegation places look like being up for grabs amongst a wide variety of different sides again this season. Bruce may feel aggrieved at the fact that, although his team had gone four matches without a win, they have eminently winnable matches against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers coming up next. Why, he may rationalise, could the club not have given him those two matches to try and improve the club’s fortunes? The answer to that question is most likely that if the directors of the club have run out of patience with and lost trust in the manager, then those upcoming matches against Wolves and Blackburn start to take a somewhat more ominous feel to them. Having dropping three points at home against Wigan Athletic, could the club afford to take the chance of a further two potentially demoralising performances against struggling teams?
If there is one thing that we have learnt in recent years in the Premier League, it has been that the bar on who is “too big to go down” has shifted somewhat, and Sunderland supporters have had their taste of an occasional season in the Championship. Sitting just two points above the relegation places with just over a third of the season played will, however, have been vexing Ellis Short of late, and it is likely that the decision has been made to replace Steve Bruce now in order to give the new incumbent at The Stadium of Light the time to be able to correct the problems that the team has encountered since the start of the season. If the new Sunderland manager can arrest the club’s slide down the table, then a position of mid-table comfort is comfortably attainable. If he can’t, then a lottery-esque end of the season could yet await. It feels, however, as if Steve Bruce’s well of imagination had run dry and that, for all the disappointment that a managerial replacement brings – it is worth remembering that such a decision is an admission of failure on the part of more than one individual – Bruce had his chance, was unable to deliver and that this was probably a timely decision. Whether the gamble pays off, however, is unlikely to be seen until the end of the season.
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