Players' declarations of team spirit and dressing-room harmony were borne out by Sunderland's timely triumph by the Thames on Sunday. Neil Cameron reports.
I WOULD have taken the win in any shape or form. So said Martin O’Neill in the aftermath of Sunday’s success against Fulham on the banks of the Thames.
It’s a good job the Sunderland manager wasn’t overly fussy because this game had no shape, and even a win including three seriously well-taken goals doesn’t suggest any real return to form.
But this was more than just a second Premier League win of the season for O’Neill’s’ team. It was proof that what every player had been saying for weeks was true.
Anyone put in front of the media in recent times had spoken about how good the team spirit was and the togetherness of the dressing room.
This tends to be the last resort of the permanently defeated football team because supporters don’t know what happens behind closed doors so they will have to believe that, in actual fact, the players aren’t coming to blows after every bad performance, and that there really is a feeling of unity.
Sunday proved the players’ comments were more than PR spin.
Carlos Cuellar’s excellent header that put Sunderland 2-1 up against Fulham could well go down as being as important as David Vaughan’s equaliser against Blackburn Rovers just over a year ago, in O’Neill’s first full game in charge.
The manager himself has often said that was a turning point. Vaughan scored with six minutes to go. In the final seconds, Seb Larsson’s free-kick won the game and Sunderland started to pull themselves away from the bottom three.
Cuellar’s goal, if anything, may be more crucial.
Fulham, down to 10 men, had just equalised. The man who scored, Mladen Petric, had suffered a gash to his leg while scoring the goal and had to be patched up.
So if Sunderland couldn’t win against nine (Petric returned to the field after five minutes but was obviously not fit) then when could they? Never would not have seemed like an over-the-top answer.
The fact that Cuellar scored when Fulham had just nine players on the park will soon be forgotten.
It came two minutes after the equaliser and it’s a good bet the Sunderland fans in London and watching on television feared the worst.
But it seems the tales of team spirit were true after all.
How else could you explain the way Sunderland didn’t panic or allow their heads to drop? Instead, Adam Johnson provided a fine cross from a corner that his Spanish team-mate directed into the Fulham goal. Had that not gone in and Fulham had managed to hang on for a draw, a distinct possibility, Sunderland would have gone 19 games, that’s half a season, with just a single win to their name.
Captain Lee Cattermole typified his team’s commitment, and Sunderland do deserve praise for making the most of Fulham’s misfortune. The midfielder was walking with a bit of a limp as he fulfilled his media duties, but any pain was put to one side as duty called.
He said: “I got caught in the ankle, but I’m fine. My knee has been bothering me and I didn’t train all week.
“I did some running on Saturday and told the gaffer I would be available.
“I’ll do some training this week and get a bit fitter. There was no way I was going to miss such a massive game.
“We scored three great goals. That will give each of those players a major boost, especially Stéphane Sessègnon, who I thought really deserved his goal on Sunday. He’s worked really hard on the training ground every week. He has got better and better this season. I thought that he was brilliant at Goodison Park and he got his reward on Sunday.
“Sess has been more like himself. He’s proof that if you work day-in, day-out in training then things will happen for you come the weekend. He scored a terrific goal and I’m sure he can build on that.” The return of the real Sessegnon is also a turning point for Sunderland.
The ball-player from Benin was, until a few weeks ago, little more than a passenger in a team that was so lacking in inspiration.
A few flashes here and there hinted that a return to last season’s level could be acquired.
Sessègnon was good against Everton and nearly great on Sunday. His goal was unquestionably terrific.
Cutting in from the wing, he sent an unstoppable shot past Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer to seal the points.
Steven Fletcher, who scored his side’s first goal, said: “We were relieved when Carlos put us back in the lead after they equalised and Sess got a great goal.
“Sess has been brilliant since I came here and I’m really happy to see him score. He deserved it.”
All of a sudden, Sunderland look in a much better position.
Four of their next five games are on Wearside, including the rearranged match with Reading. They sit just two points behind Newcastle in the league.
Fletcher, speaking to the club’s website, said: “Confidence is high. We know we have the ability to win games and hopefully we can push on from this now.”
It might have taken three months, but Sunderland’s season may have started at long last.