Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland will end the year in good form – but they have required understanding and patience during a year of peaks and troughs. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas reports
SUNDERLAND have been consistently inconsistent this season but, through all the trails and tribulations, one thing has remained constant at the Stadium of Light: unity.
That much was apparent when Ellis Short strolled through the Sunderland Press room before the critical Reading clash, shaking hands with journalists and seeking out the one or two who had questioned Martin O’Neill’s future. It sent a message that the bond between the American and the manager he once described as “absolutely the right man for the job” remained resolute.
It is a similar story on the terraces, where 2,000 Sunderland supporters were prepared to back O’Neill and his team at Southampton just 48 hours before Christmas. Did they do that because of any great success on the pitch? The more likely explanation is that it reflected faith in the manager despite the results.
For all that Sunderland might not have taken a great leap forward in terms of results, it certainly feels as if the club is resting on more solid foundations than they were 12 months ago. A battle against relegation might not have been swerved just yet, but Sunderland’s supporters have taken the temperature of O’Neill’s project and they like what they see.
At the end of 2012, that represents some form of achievement on behalf of the Black Cats boss as he looks to end the calendar year with a Wearside flourish.
“I actually believe that myself,” the Sunderland boss said. “There’s some understanding here but you want to win some football games.
“The more you win the better people feel about everything around the place and the club in general. I’m pleased we’ve won a couple of games and it helps of course. We’ve not cracked anything at all and that’s very obvious.
“It was great to win against Man City and that should give us a confidence booster, though it might get knocked against Spurs. The win has certainly helped.”
It probably emboldened O’Neill too, who was unusually candid as he set out a top-six target for Sunderland under his stewardship. He has never gone quite that far before but, bolstered by a sense that they might just have turned a corner, O’Neill said that he does have big dreams for the Black Cats.
The fire has returned to his eyes, and he was extremely upbeat as he cast an eye over the year just gone.
“It’s been a great experience, very enjoyable,” he said. “It’s been a great privilege to manage this football club. We are trying to do a few things. The support we received on Boxing Day is pretty typical of this football club.
“You want to do well and everyone does. You make it your duty to try to do well. Because of the lack of success here, you want to do well.”
After Manchester City, the stadium will be infused with confidence for the visit of a Tottenham team that have skipped into the Champions League places after a run of fine recent form.
“We played really well. The players performed brilliantly in the match and there were some fantastic things in it. It was great to win the game and it will give us great confidence and hopefully we can carry that on. Easier said than done,” he said.
The visit of Tottenham and Andre Villas-Boas gives O’Neill the opportunity to talk directly to his Spurs counterpart about the future of Danny Rose (left), who is ineligible to play this lunchtime.
That is a major blow for Sunderland today, but his form this season – which is bound to attract covetous glances from other Premier League clubs – has been a sizeable boost for the Black Cats.
“He’s been terrific, really terrific, he’s come on leaps and bounds and is playing with plenty of confidence and the crowd have taken to him,” O’Neill said.
“That’s something you can’t do anything about, when it was discussed in the first place with Tottenham about taking him, they were very pleased we’d take him.
“He wanted to come, he’s a Doncaster lad and he wanted to do anything to get out because he felt he was not going to play.
“In truth with Benoît Assou-Ekotto coming back he might not get into their side. They’re pretty strong at this minute and it’s not only beneficial for the lad and for us but at the minute it’s beneficial for Tottenham.
“I wanted to take him anyway at the time, and I went to have discussions with him and his agent when Spurs gave us permission to do so. He looked really up for the challenge and it was that as much as anything else that I liked.
“He played against Aston Villa at the end of last season and I watched the game. There were some parts of his game he could definitely improve like helping to cover when the ball was on the far side, but he’s doing better at that aspect. In terms of players trying to beat him one on one he’s tough to beat.
“He’s enjoying it immensely here and he wants to stay here. Spurs are pretty pleased with his progress and the fact he’s playing regular football.”