Prem getting tougher – Bruce

The Black Cats will head for relegated West Ham on Sunday relieved

that their slump since January, which took them from sixth place to

within touching distance of the drop zone at one point, has not

proved more costly. Injuries and Darren Bent’s £24million

departure for Aston Villa have decimated Bruce’s squad, but, with

five clubs still fighting for their lives on the final day of the

campaign, he believes the gap between the top six and the foot of

the table has decreased markedly. Bruce said: “Hang on a minute –

Arsenal have won two in 10, Tottenham have won one in six after

beating Liverpool last week, and the teams at the bottom, even

Blackpool – to get to 39 points, what an achievement that is, and

still they are fighting. “If we had won last week, we would have

gone eighth, for a few hours, anyway. It shows you how close it is.

“It’s been quite an incredible season and all credit to every team

– 39 points and five teams still fighting against relegation is

scary, really. “If all of us had seen that at the start of the

season, it would have scared the pants off us all because usually

one or two are set adrift, but five clubs are still hanging by a

thread. “Thankfully we are not in there, which is a relief for all

Sunderland fans.” Bruce’s side will run out at Upton Park hoping to

end a season of two halves on a high note. They have won just two

of their last 13 games and taken only seven points from a possible

39 having last season gone 14 league matches without a win. That

run cost them a top-10 finish and that same fate could befall them

again on Sunday even if they do return from West Ham with all three

points. However, Bruce, who has grown weary of blaming the ongoing

catalogue of fitness woes for his side’s decline, remains

philosophical. He said: “There is always going to be a time for

every team. There’s only Manchester United – even the great Chelsea

team, they had their run; Liverpool had their run at the start.

Every team has it. “It’s part of it. Unless you are going to win

the Premier League, usually you are going to have a bad time for a

few weeks or months. “It’s how you deal with it and, to be fair, we

haven’t dealt with it as well as maybe we could have – I can level

that criticism at myself.” Despite criticism from some fans, Bruce

still enjoys the support of chairman Niall Quinn, with whom he met

this week to discuss the club’s summer transfer policy. He hopes to

push home his interest in a couple of Bosman free transfers early

next week – he is not mentioning names, but has been heavily linked

with Sebastian Larsson and David Vaughan in recent days – but knows

finding a replacement for Bent will be his major task. “We have got

to keep improving,” he said. “The Premier League will improve.

“There you go – Sir Alex Ferguson has just won the league, he’s in

the Champions League final and he wants three players to add to the

quality of it. “Of course, it’s going to be difficult. Aston Villa

would have been in a hell of a state without Darren Bent. Let’s be

honest – they came and bought our best player. “We have to look and

scour. That’s my job – to try to find another one if we can.

“Darren Bent did fantastically well here and scored a lot of goals.

We have to go and find a replacement for him. We have to go and get

a proven striker.”