Aidan O'Hara: Bruce's Cats raise the bar
SINCE Roy Keane quit as manager, the Irishisation of Sunderland has gone from full-on leprechauns dancing and shouting "top of the mornin' to ya" down to a mere bit of diddly-eye.
Most of the investors from these parts are gone, the Corkman around which much of it was based has been unemployed for nine months and there's only a couple of players left who might know the words to Amhran Na bhFiann.
Yet it seems that there's now a desire to bring back the rare aul' times to the north-east of England using some good old-fashioned methods.
How else to explain the timing of the comments made last Thursday by manager Steve Bruce and chairman Niall Quinn in relation to players drinking? It can't be a coincidence that they chose Arthur's Day in an attempt to attract players to the club, with both men revealing that they reckon players should be encouraged to "bond".
Those who organise Arthur's Day seem pretty sure that the great man needs a day to himself, although the date seems flexible with it being September 24, 23 and 22 in the three years of its recently discovered existence.
Given that Ireland is a country that celebrates events with alcohol from the cradle (christenings) to the grave (funerals), it's hardly surprising that the new places of worship seem to be as packed on a random Thursday in September as the old ones are on December 25. You normally have to listen to people rambling on in both church and the pub but the food is much nicer in the latter.
"It's pleasing to see the Irish lads went out for a beer beforehand and had a great result afterwards," said Quinn in a wide-ranging discussion on Irish sport from rugby to GAA to soccer.
"That's something that was overplayed for years, 'oh, we have to be professional'. We called for it for years, that we had to eat pasta and do it the right way. But passion is the biggest thing Ireland has."
Quinn wasn't actively encouraging players to go on the lash, but given the ability of professional footballers to latch onto any reason not to be professional, Sunderland players reading the comments of the club's chairman would take heart -- and another beer if you're offering.
At least Quinn and Bruce are on the same page, with the Black Cats boss revealing earlier that day that he had allowed his players to go out in celebration of their 4-0 victory against Stoke City. Or, to put it another way, their first win in their opening six games.
"They went go-karting, they went for a Japanese meal," said Bruce, who shortened the following day's training session as the players dealt with their hangovers. "Where they went after that, God only knows, but they all came back in one piece. That's good -- it's part and parcel of being in the team."
If a 4-0 win against a team that had endured a 4,500-kilometre round-trip to Kiev just days beforehand is cause for such celebration, imagine what the players will be expecting if they manage to beat the might of Norwich City at Carrow Road tonight.
It's unrealistic to expect players to behave like monks for the entire season but, if it was such a good idea for Sunderland's collection of new players to go out and bond together, why didn't they do so before the season started? For somebody who has been in the game as long as Bruce, it was surprising to make a players' night out public knowledge because he's now provided a few bullets for the critics to fire.
Phil Brown thought he was being clever when he conducted the half-time team-talk on the pitch during Hull's game at Manchester City a few years ago but, for all the short-term benefit he gained among supporters for publicly berating the players, the long-term picture was that they lost all respect for him.
Bruce is not in that situation yet but if they lose tonight, there might be questions as to whether the players should just have got their heads down after training last week and concentrated on Norwich rather than trying to work out who was paying for the night out (it was Craig Gardiner by the way who lost the credit card raffle and had to stump up the cash).
Even if they win, Bruce has partly ceded any credit that comes his way for some tactical change he might have made after the run of five games without a win by putting an improvement in form down to players going out drinking together rather than his own managerial nous.
The heady heights of the top 10 beckon tonight which will undoubtedly be cause for more celebration with only one man to salute by raising a glass.