STEVE Bruce has branded Fabio Capello's recent comments about former Sunderland striker Darren Bent "hugely disrespectful", and claimed his club's players suffer from the England managers refusal to visit the North-East.
Capello angered many Sunderland supporters in the build-up to this week's friendly between England and Denmark when he claimed Bent's £14m move to Aston Villa had already helped him become a more rounded and effective player.
The controversy escalated in the wake of Wednesday's 2-1 victory at the Parken Stadium, a game that saw Bent score his second international goal, as the striker confirmed Capello had told him last month's move had helped his international chances.
Bruce is understandably frustrated at the England manager's implicit criticism of the Black Cats, and while he couched his own comments in measured tones, the strength of his feeling was apparent.
"It is a frustration to us all and it's hugely disrespectful if he has said that (about Bent and England)," said the Sunderland boss. "Darren Bent scored 24 goals for us and had an unbelievable season yet didn't go to the World Cup. I find that a harsh statement.
"I find it difficult to understand, I really do. I did not ask him (Bent) to hold back, how can you ask a player to hold back and just stay around the box? I didn't ask him to do that, although everyone is entitled to their opinions.
"When I first signed Darren Bent, he was languishing in Spurs reserves. He was nowhere near the England squad. He propelled himself back into the frame because of what he did for us, and in his first season he couldn't have done any more.
"He single-handedly kept us where we were. He had a wonderful season scoring 24 goals. Now all of a sudden, because he has played two games for Villa, they are saying he is a new player. I can't quite go along with that."
Capello's comments on the perceived limitations of Sunderland's playing style are particularly controversial given the limited number of times he has seen the club play, particularly at the Stadium of Light.
The England boss' last visit to Wearside was in August 2009, when he watched Bent score in a 3-1 defeat to Chelsea.
Since then, he has attended a handful of the club's away games, hardly an arrangement that is conducive to a rounded assessment of Sunderland's strengths or style given that they only won two matches away from the Stadium of Light in the whole of last season.
"I think the geography is a big problem," said Bruce. "How many times has Mr Capello been to Sunderland or Newcastle for that matter?
"I can understand it (his reluctance to travel to the North-East) and, to be fair, he covers a lot of matches. He will probably look at his schedule and think, 'If I go to London or Manchester, I can do two or three games in a day'.
"If he comes here, he can't do that. It is a long way up and a long way back, and I wouldn't know how many times he has sent his number two (Franco Baldini)instead."
Roy Keane used to complain about the difficulty of attracting players to the North-East, and the fear is that Capello's comments will make it even harder to persuade talented young English players to uproot to Wearside.
Jordan Henderson was axed from England's senior squad after just one appearance in November, but Bruce denies there is a ceiling to what a player can achieve with Sunderland.
Sulley Muntari and Stephane Sessegnon might not be English, but Bruce feels their willingness to join the Black Cats last month provides a ringing endorsement of the club's profile and ambition.
"Coming here should not be a bar to anything," he said. "Look at Sessegnon and Muntari, they left Paris St Germain and Inter Milan, two big clubs, to join us. The big thing for us at the moment is that we can attract players like that because we are at the right end of the table.
"If you are fighting for a European place, it helps. Two years ago, I wouldn't have been in a position to sign Muntari, but because we are doing well, he looks at it and thinks, 'Why not'. When players get here and see the facilities and the crowds we get, they know it is a very decent place to ply your trade."
Both Muntari and Sessegnon will remain in the starting line-up when Sunderland entertain Tottenham in today's evening kick-off.
Craig Gordon will retain his place between the sticks despite missing Scotland's midweek win over Northern Ireland with a knee injury, while Jordan Henderson should also be passed fit despite only returning to training yesterday following his withdrawal from the England Under-21 squad.
Long-term absentees Fraizer Campbell and Michael Turner both returned to light training this week, and with Sunderland not having a game next weekend as a result of their FA Cup exit, the pair could be available for the Premier League game at Everton on February 26."