After months of struggle, Sunderland found a performance in the mould of their passionate manager. NEIL CAMERON reports
AN all-time classic YouTube clip featuring Martin O’Neill resurfaced last week in the wake of the Champions League quarter-final draw.
His old club Celtic were pitted against Juventus, which caused the mind to drift back 11 years to the last time those two teams met in Europe, when O’Neill was in his second season with the Glasgow club.
Celtic had good players back then, but there were others such as Didier Agathe, a £65,000 signing, and Bobo Baldé, a free transfer, who were punching well above their weight.
Yet this band of brothers fought back from 2-0 down in Turin to equalise against Juventus, then the Italian champions and chock full of world-class talent.
Juventus were given a highly dubious late penalty to win the game which an incandescent O’Neill – with fire in his eyes – described many times in a memorable television interview as “extraordinary.”
You had to admire the guy’s passion. The clip is well worth seeking out.
That 2001 game was an archetypal performance from an O’Neill team against superior opposition.
His players didn’t care one jot about the big names with their even bigger reputations.
They were too busy standing shoulder to shoulder against the so-called superstars who they showed no respect for on the night.
Just as Sunderland did with Manchester City on Boxing Day.
That was the type of performance Sunderland supporters want to see from their team on a regular basis in the second half of the season – a Martin O’Neill performance.
They, like the manager, want the players to show grit, determination, be unafraid of whoever the opposition are, give every last ounce of energy and to play decent football as well.
Sunderland managed this and a whole lot more in their 1-0 win over City at a rocking Stadium of Light.
City players were not given a second to dawdle on the ball when they had possession and they didn’t like it.
There was a period before half-time when Steven Fletcher, Stéphane Sessègnon and Adam Johnson chased the ball as the blue shirts tried to knock it about in midfield.
The ball eventually was played back to Joe Hart. This earned a huge round of applause from their impressed manager.
Jack Colback may have had a hard time of late, but he excelled against Yaya Touré, one of the most complete midfielders in world football.
Colback went toe-to-toe with the giant Touré and won almost all of their duels.
That wasn’t happening a month or so ago. It is what always happened in O’Neill sides. He’s never picked players who were daunted in the slightest by some so-called star.
James McClean and Johnson offered width and guile on either flank, with the little magician Sessègnon inside them ready to run past blue shirts at every opportunity.
Everyone wanted the ball. Nobody hid. Not a single attacking player shirked his defensive duties.
McClean’s best moment came in the first half when he tracked back 50 yards to put in a tackle on Carlos Tevez just as the Argentinian was about to make the most of a clear shot at Simon Mignolet’s goal.
Would this have happened in November? No.
Then there was stand-in skipper Carlos Cuellar and the recalled Matt Kilgallon as the makeshift centre-half pairing.
They headed clear everything that came into their box and, along with everyone else in a red-and-white shirt, thought nothing of putting their bodies in the way of shots from point-blank range.
Sunderland played as a team and played for their manager.
If they continue like this they will do fine between now and May and when managers like to remind us is the only time the League table matters.
City’s coach Brian Kidd took time to congratulate O’Neill moments after Wednesday’s game to congratulate Sunderland on their attitude and commitment.
Kidd deserved praise for being gracious, which is more than can be said about Roberto Mancini, whose “lucky” comments after the game were as perplexing as they were plain wrong.
Kidd also did well to get a hold of O’Neill, who had prowled the touchline for all 94 minutes on Boxing Day, kicking every ball, shouting encouragement and pointing to the spot where he wanted his players to be.
This time the team were as passionate as their gaffer, which didn’t happen when West Brom, QPR and Aston Villa all took points from the Stadium of Light.
O’Neill’s demeanour at recent Press conferences has given the impression he’s been a man under pressure, which would all have come from himself.
The Sunderland manager, however, deserves praise for steering the ship through such troubled waters and finding something extra from a group of players left battered and bruised.
The fire is back in O’Neill’s eyes.
He stopped himself from rising to the bait of Mancini’s comments but you could tell he was happy the Italian was sent back to Manchester in a foul mood.
Sunderland have risen to 13th in the Premier League. They are three points off a top-ten place and seven clear of third-bottom Wigan.
Three out of the last four Premier League matches have been won, the loss coming at Old Trafford.
As O’Neill said when asked if the win over the champions could be a base on which he could build the rest of this season: “There is a long way to go.”
However, if the last performance can be repeated against Spurs tomorrow, Sunderland supporters will look forward to rest of this season rather than dread it.