Sunderland clash pivotal for Bruce in more ways than one

Posted by Philip Buckingham

Julian Finney/Getty ImagesHull City manager Steve Bruce spent 30 months at the helm of Sunderland.

"Arguably the biggest game of our season," remarked Steve Bruce at the start of this week. Not towards a Capital One Cup tie at Tottenham and the chance to make Hull City history with a very fist step into the quarter-finals, but in reference Saturday's Premier League date with lowly Sunderland.

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Forget the glamorous trips to Chelsea, Manchester City and Spurs, a reunion with his former employers is the one Bruce has targeted above all the rest so far this term.

This one really matters. It matters because City can ill-afford a fourth game without a win and it matters because, well, it's Sunderland.

His sacking as Black Cats boss almost two years ago cut him deeper than any moment in his footballing career and nothing he achieves between now and retirement will fully rid him of those scars.

The memory of his final days on Wearside, when abuse rained down from all angles inside the Stadium of Light, still bring a shudder to his burly frame. A Newcastle-supporting background provided the stick to beat Bruce with and 40,000 or so disgruntled supporters duly obliged in a torrent.

Bruce limped away from Sunderland at the end of November 2011 a broken man. What was supposed to be a chance to take his career to another level after success with Birmingham and Wigan ended with him depicted as a tactical dinosaur, as yesterday's man.

Finishes of 13th and 10th during his two full seasons undermine such conclusions, but the damage was done when leaving with Sunderland on the slide.

Hindsight at least paints Bruce in an increasingly kind light. While an unstable Sunderland fall backwards, with Martin O'Neill, Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet longing for the top-half finish enjoyed by their predecessor, Bruce is proving his former critics wrong as City boss.

If promotion in his first year at the KC Stadium quickly repaired his reputation in the Championship, survival in the Premier League, at the potential expense of a struggling Sunderland side, would fully complete his journey. Those dinosaur jibes are already extinct.

Not one home supporter would argue otherwise; Sunderland's loss has been City's gain. Bruce is currently king in East Yorkshire and while a rough ride awaits 3,000 travelling fans this weekend, it is hard to imagine his current relationship ever turning sour.

Bruce claims to have bigger things to worry about, insisting the prospect of facing Sunderland brings no added significance. "But a win would be nice," he added as a subtle caveat.

And how. Although City continue to win admirers, with Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas the latest to salute their courage after two tight contests at White Hart Lane, adding to their points total is a must. As a brave Blackpool side found out in 2010-11, plaudits only take you so far.

By common agreement, this has been an excellent start to the season, yet the 10th game will go a long way to how City's first quarter is finally judged.

One point from a possible nine since the end of September has scratched at the gloss of a superb opening and failure to beat a Sunderland side cut adrift in the bottom three would be a further source of irritation at the end of a taxing week.

Win and move up to 14 points, though, and everything will again look rosy in the KC's garden. Little wonder then that Bruce has placed so much significance on this weekend, arguably the one and only inviting chance for points in a segment that concludes away to in-form Southampton on Saturday week.

City are healthy in mind after their moral victories at Tottenham, where a penalty kick cruelly decided both Premier League and Capital One Cup games, but in body there will be inevitable concerns for Bruce.

A injury-hit squad, taken to extra-time on Wednesday night, will be asked to go again less than three days later against a Sunderland side no doubt rejuvenated by a derby victory over Newcastle last time out.

City's trump card will be their central midfield duo reforming at just the right moment. Jake Livermore missed both games against parent club Spurs and will surely drop straight back in, while Tom Huddlestone, a target for Sunderland this summer, will also have benefitted from a midweek without Capital One Cup duties. Maynor Figueroa, Yannick Sagbo and Steve Harper are three more to come back with batteries recharged.

The question facing Bruce is a tactical one. Both games at Tottenham began with a cautious outlook designed primarily to frustrate, but that approach will almost certainly be abandoned on home turf where they remain unbeaten since early April. Sunderland, breached 11 times in four away games this season, are there to be attacked.

Bruce needs this win to keep doubt well away from the KC front door. And if he can silence Sunderland's travelling supporters in the process, then all the better for the Tigers' restoration man.

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