Steve Bruce will not bow to the pressure of the toughest spell of his Sunderland reign to date. The 49-year-old manager enjoyed a hugely encouraging start to his tenure on Wearside, amassing 20 Premier League points from the first 39 on offer -a return which included famous home victories over both Liverpool and Arsenal. Apart from an inability to reproduce their home form on the road, a Sunderland side in which new additions Darren Bent, Lee Cattermole, Lorik Cana and Michael Turner were shining was looking set fair for a much improved campaign which, many commentators predicted, could be rewarded with a European flirtation.
However, with injuries and suspensions having decimated Bruce's squad during the ensuing weeks, the last nine league games, including a 7-2 defeat at Chelsea, have brought just three points, and seen the club slide to a position which leaves them heading into tonight's home clash with Stoke in 13th place and only three points clear of the drop zone. It has proved a testing period for Bruce, although he is convinced his team's fortunes will improve when he again has a full squad to choose from.
"It's been the toughest, yes, but it's part and parcel of it," said Bruce, who could sign striker Robbie Keane from Tottenham today. "I could make excuses all day long of what the problems are - the simple fact is we need to get people fit. Once we do that and I can get my big players fit, we will be all right. Please believe me, we will be all right. "But until then, and until I can get a settled back four in particular, we are always going to find it a little bit difficult."
Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, expects Steve Bruce's players to be looking to bounce back, saying: "Irrespective of what they [Sunderland] have done or haven't done, it's going to be a tough game." * PA Sport Sunderland v Stoke City, midnight, Showsports 2