MARTIN O’Neill believes Stéphane Sessègnon will still be a Sunderland player come the close of the transfer window – but he has stopped short of guaranteeing the continued loyalty of his star forward.
Sessègnon’s terrific form in the second half of last season led to speculation he was being coveted by Arsenal and Manchester City – reports given some credence by the fact his family have struggled to settle in the North East.
So far Sunderland have moved to the final month of the transfer window without receiving one serious enquiry about Sessègnon and that suits O’Neill, who “genuinely” wants to retain the services of the Benin international.
However, the Black Cats boss swerves the idea of issuing a ‘hands-off’ warning about the forward – and says he cannot say for certain the Wearsiders will be able to resist all overtures towards him. O’Neill said: “We would very much like to keep Stéphane – any manager would want to keep him
“He gives us that extra creativity and he is very important to us so I would genuinely like to keep him.
“I would love to give a ‘hands-off’ message but I wish it was as easy as that.
“If I was to say ‘You cannot touch him’ then I might have to come back here two days later and say ‘sorry’.
“That would be all bravado speak and then he’s gone, so I couldn’t give that sort of message.
“However, I definitely want to keep him at this football club.
“I echo the sentiments of all of us, including the supporters on that front.”
O’Neill’s bigger concern might be with the mental well-being of Sessègnon (pictured right), but he feels the African forward has put those issues behind him.
He added: “He texts in perfect English now! He understands. There is an element of that (whether his family are happy) but there’s only so much you can do.
“If some families can’t settle in areas or countries then you have to take it into consideration.
“That was an issue and I just hope that issue disappears again this year – I don’t want that to rear its head again.”
If Sessègnon is one player carrying high hopes next season, James McClean is another after his excellent debut campaign in red and white.
O’Neill is aware he will have to put up with teams being more aware of him, but feels the Republic of Ireland international has enough ability to make those concerns an irrelevance. He said: “It’s a big season for James. There is talk of second-season syndrome but I have a good belief and I don’t think it will affect him.
“He has done well in training and looks as strong as he was before.
“He looks just as determined, I don’t think talk of second- season syndrome will bother him.
“It was great for him to go to the Euros, even if he didn’t get on the field, and the experience will have been great for him, I’m sure.”
With just two weeks to go before the start of the season, O’Neill says he believes Sunderland should see themselves as an established top-ten club while he is in charge.
Although he shies clear of making bold predictions – as ever – he has seen enough from the club to know that is a realistic prospect.
He added: “The club haves the potential to be an established top-ten club, absolutely.
“It has fantastic support. There were more than 40,000 people in here for the second last home game with Bolton when nothing was to play for and that tells you everything about the club.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill has confirmed former Manchester United defender Wes Brown should be fit for the start of the season – but retains concerns about both right-back Phil Bardsley and midfielder David Vaughan, who has had a hernia operation.