MARTIN O’Neill dropped his biggest hint yet that he will be active in the transfer market this summer, after blaming fatigue for Sunderland’s joint biggest defeat this season.
A team featuring one change from the one which drew 0-0 with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday were outclassed by an Everton side with one eye on this week’s FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool.
Assistant manager Steve Round admitted Leighton Baines, Nikica Jelavic and Tim Cahill “all would have played if asked” but, as they did before their quarter-final with the Black Cats, Everton rested players for the Cup.
Afterwards O’Neill (left) – without Nicklas Bendtner through a back injury – seemed envious of the squad depth which allowed that.
“I don’t think you can talk about losing one particular player,” he argued.
“That’s something we hope to be able to change in the not-too distant future.
“The loss of one or two players shouldn’t affect us as much as it did.
“I don’t need to be beaten by Everton to know that (there is much improving still to be done). I don’t think I would be
fooled. We’ve got lots of work to do.
“It’s a big learning curve particularly for some of the younger lads, who have very, very limited experience in this division. It’s a tough old league.
“You look at some of the Everton squad who’ve been around and are very, very good players. That’s why they’re contesting a semi-final. They’re in decent form and they’ve got their players available, so well done them.”
O’Neill seemed disinterested in the last transfer window, claiming not to have even discussed what funds were available with chairman Ellis Short until late in the month.
He tried to sign Kevin Davies from Bolton Wanderers and when that failed to come off, did without another striker.
His only signings were loans, and neither Wayne Bridge nor Sotirios Krygiakos have impressed.
Having taken the lead through Magaye Gueye, Everton scored three more in six minutes late in the game.
The 4-0 defeat equalled the margin against West Bromwich Albion as the biggest of Sunderland’s campaign. O’Neill, who continued to chase the game through his substitutions, again pointed to tiredness as an explanation for the capitulation.
“The goals came very, very quickly and they were great goals from their viewpoint but we looked a little bit tired,” he said. “I’ve got nothing but great regard for the team. We were out-muscled by a strong Everton side, who were able to make some changes to their team.
“We’ve got lots to do, lots to learn. But it’s been a big effort from the lads in the last three or four months.”
Any sort of defeat, never mind of that magnitude, had not been in the offing during a first-half of precious little goalmouth action.
But while Everton upped their game in the second, Sunderland failed to register a shot on target in the 90 minutes.
“There wasn’t much in at half-time,” O’Neill commented. “I thought we were in with a chance. The first goal was very important and from where I was I thought it was a foul on Jack Colback.
“That said, if the game had been decided on that I might have had something to complain about.
“Everton were stronger, played very well, and there was some great finishing by them. We could have done better.
“We were well beaten in the end. Everton were physically stronger and deserved to win.”
It is 18 games since Sunderland beat Everton, who knocked them out of this season’s FA Cup to set up a last-four clash with Liverpool.
They have won four and drawn one of their last five games.
“A semi-final at Wembley is a one-off and a derby is a one-off,” commented former Middlesbrough coach Round.
“I’m not sure it matters that much.”