THERE were seven minutes left on the clock at sodden St Mary’s when Martin O’Neill’s appreciative public asked for their terrific support to be rewarded with a wave.
Almost apologetically, O’Neill – who was at that point absolutely engrossed in an absorbing contest – raised his hands to half mast to acknowledge the chant before quickly gesturing for them to calm down. As a metaphor for the game – for Sunderland’s season, even – it felt fitting.
Sunderland are getting there, but it is a slow process. The signs of progress that we all noticed as far back as that afternoon at Goodison Park at the start of November are finally bearing fruit and O’Neill’s vision of a team that combines implacable spirit with offensive swagger is beginning to emerge, week-by-week, minute-by-minute.
Against Southampton, Sunderland found a way to combine the two parts of their game that have remained stubbornly separate all year.
The defensive authority that typified their edgy start to the season was back but it dove-tailed with a threat which was just enough to mortally wound Nigel Adkins’ subdued Southampton.
It sounds like a simple equation for success but too often this season, Sunderland have failed to add up to the sum of their parts. Be it good players out of form or an unwillingness to embrace their offensive responsibilities, O’Neill’s team have under-performed.
Those results have dulled expectation enough to the extent where simply avoiding relegation will now be seen as an achievement but here was evidence that Sunderland could – indeed they should – tilt for so much more in 2013.
“Top ten?” O’Neill responded with an element of exasperation when asked whether his glass was half empty or half full at the end of the year.
But why not? With one or two additions, this squad has the ability to do more than just keep their heads above water.
Safety is the understandable priority, though, and two wins in three matches means that the Black Cats are off the endangered list for Christmas. A festive fixture list best viewed from behind the couch is suddenly not quite so scary. O’Neill, however, remains aware of the bigger picture.
“We’re not in any kind of position to start boasting about anything,” he said, head bowed in his post-match press conference.
“Absolutely not, particularly with the programme that’s ahead of us. But this gives us some confidence to go into the game on Boxing Day.
“With the games we have coming up, it was really important for us to win and they’ve been in excellent form. Now we’ve managed two wins in the last three games, and I think we’d all admit they were very important matches for us to win.” Sunderland’s year might not have fulfilled all of their expectations but they do have one huge achievement from the toil to reflect on: unity.
That much was clear on the south coast, where an impressive 1,800 Sunderland fans had defied the ridiculous Christmas scheduling to make one of the Premier League’s longest journeys. They were there not to chase glory but because O’Neill has filled them full of defiance. Despite recent results his approval ratings at the Stadium of Light – both on the terraces and in the boardroom – remain remarkably high and his players are clearly united behind him. You could pick from plenty but one moment sticks in the mind: James McClean, who has been so infuriatingly self-destructive at times this year, scampered down Southampton’s left flank in the second half with the kind of carefree brio that has been so absent from his play this season. A crowd of home players conspired to check his progress but his tackling back was tigerish and he ferociously ensured that possession would not be lost.
To be fair, McClean was not one of the better red-and-white performers on Saturday. The pick of them was John O’Shea, who was absolutely terrific alongside the similarly impressive Carlos Cuellar. To their defiance, we can add Stéphane Sessegnon – who added an attacking flourish that was a joy to watch at times. But even Sunderland’s star man seems to be on board in terms of effort, hard work and determination to succeed.
Unity: it might not be rewarded with medals, ticker tape parades or massive prize money but in its own way, it is a huge testament to O’Neill’s work.
It all creates the perfect backdrop for results like this to be chiseled out. Sunderland had been counselled about the importance of the game in the run-up and began well, with Sessegnon’s smart turn and shot forcing a brilliant save from Kelvin Davis. That prompted a measure of worry that the former Sunderland stopper – who couldn’t catch a cold during his time on Wearside – was going to have one of ‘those’ days, and Southampton’s readiness to attack for the first quarter of an hour raised anxiety levels.
But Sunderland were equal to their attacks and with Steven Fletcher in their forward line, they’ll always have a chance.
His instinctive finish just before half-time – after Sessegnon had miscued his shot – was his only real chance of note. Again, he converted it.
Then it was all about defiance, and if we know anything about O’Neill’s Sunderland it is that they will be OK in those circumstances.
“I’ve said to the lads here, although I’m not sure they want to listen to me any more, that we have a fine spirit,” O’Neill reflected.
“That spirit was there last year too and it helped carry us through some difficult months.
“I think we’ve retained that. Of course you get hit by things, but I think the spirit is strong.”
Then came the mitigation. “Spirit alone is not enough though,” he said.
“With the best will in the world, we need more ability in the team.”