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Sunderland derby comment - some recurring problems reappear
IT is a game they want to win more than any other, but with one notable exception, it is a match that has caused nothing but misery for more than 30 years.
Sunderland supporters have experienced enough Wear-Tyne derby heartbreak to begrudgingly learn how to deal with defeat, but that still doesn't make Saturday's latest setback any easier to bear.
Faced with a Newcastle United side supposedly in chaos, and buoyed by nine summer signings who were supposed to have strengthened the squad out of all recognition, Sunderland nevertheless adopted their default derby setting of the compliant conquered.
It is now one derby win from 15 on Wearside, a dreadful record that stifles any claim to regional supremacy no matter what the two clubs' respective finishing positions might be come next May.
Sadly, for Sunderland fans, the derby does that. As the prospects of success elsewhere recede – and let's be honest, there's not much chance of either the Black Cats or the Magpies shrugging off their underachiever tag to actually win anything this season – so the importance of the twice-yearly meeting of the tribes increases.
At some stage, Steve Bruce is going to have to get the hang of this, otherwise his position will forever be compromised by his failure to outwit the club he once supported as a boy.
Churlish to bring up his roots? Probably. But the subject was raised on Saturday evening, and it will continue to be raised for as long as his Sunderland side suffer home defeats at the hands of Newcastle. Bruce knew that when he took over, and he will continue to accept it now.
“We know what is ahead,” said the Black Cats boss. “It is going to be difficult because, in many people's eyes, it is unforgivable. We know what the derby means.
“It is not going to cloud our judgement that we played well in the first half, but we will have to be ready for the flak that is going to come our way.
“I don't think anything can be as bad as the 5-1 and all that humiliation, but I'll just have to live with this and get on with things as best I can.”
That process begins with a Carling Cup tie at Brighton tomorrow, and despite some of the knee-jerk responses to Ryan Taylor's second-half winner, Bruce remains the right man to take Sunderland forward.
Lest we forget, he guided the club to only their third top-ten finish in the top-flight for half-a-century last season, and has been granted considerable licence to make changes in the transfer market this summer. Removing him now would achieve little.
It must also be noted that, for at least 45 minutes of Saturday's game, Sunderland were the better side. They played the more effective football before the break, and would have been ahead had Tim Krul not made two fine saves from Stephane Sessegnon or Asamoah Gyan directed his shot an inch or two lower rather than clipping the top of the crossbar in first-half stoppage time.
Last season, Bruce felt Sunderland's players froze at St James' Park, and still lacked the ability to compete when they drew the return fixture on Wearside.
That was not the case at the weekend. If anything, the Black Cats were a little over-zealous, culminating in Phil Bardsley's 89th-minute dismissal. With Lee Cattermole proving more than a match for Cheik Tiote, and both Anton Ferdinand and Wes Brown performing creditably against Shola Ameobi, it wasn't a lack of big characters that sunk the hosts.
If anything, it was a lack of composure, particularly after Sunderland fell behind in the 62nd minute, and a lack of attacking options beyond the impressive Sessegnon.
The composure issue is a particular concern, as it has been apparent throughout Bruce's time at the helm. On countless occasions, Sunderland have started strongly, only to collapse when a setback occurs.
The opposite happened at Liverpool on the opening weekend, raising hopes that a cure had been found, but Saturday saw the Wearsiders revert to type.
The lack of a calming presence in midfield was undoubtedly a factor, and for all that Cattermole and Jack Colback threw themselves around willingly, they did not exude the kind of control and authority that was exhibited by Yohan Cabaye in the Magpies' ranks.
When all hell was breaking loose in the final half hour, Sunderland were crying out for someone to put their foot on the ball and dictate the tempo of the game. Unfortunately, they didn't have that player.
They also didn't possess anyone capable of scoring a goal. Bruce has spent £15m on goalscorers this summer (£8.1m on Connor Wickham, £2m on Ji Dong-won, £5m on Craig Gardner), yet none of his attacking signings were deemed ready to start the derby.
Sessegnon is a fine player, and could well prove the star of Sunderland's season, but he is not an out-and-out goalscorer who comes alive in the penalty box.
Consequently, if things are not going Gyan's way – and on Saturday, they weren't – the Black Cats lack a goalscoring threat.
Either the likes of Wickham or Ji are capable of doing something to address that, in which case it is time to start thinking about how they can be integrated into the starting XI, or they are not, in which case it is fair to ask why Bruce committed £10m to their capture when the need for striking reinforcements was glaringly apparent.
The Carling Cup is an important competition, as it provides one of just two viable routes to some silverware at the end of the season, but tomorrow's second-round tie nevertheless provides a valuable opportunity to see what some of the supposed fringe players can do. Bruce should grasp that opportunity, as Saturday's defeat exposed enduring weaknesses that have been carried over from last term.
He could do with solving them by September 10, when Chelsea visit Wearside, but the key date comes six months later.
It is not even the end of August yet, but minds are already turning to March 3. Derby day number two – already a final chance to save the season.
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