SUNDERLAND’S hopes that their international contingent would return from national team duties with a clean bill of health were dealt a blow last night when Adam Johnson withdrew from the England squad after picking up a thigh injury.
The Black Cats winger has returned to the club for treatment following a scan yesterday, meaning he will miss tomorrow’s Group H match in Moldova as well as Tuesday’s home game against Ukraine.
Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill will now be crossing his fingers Johnson will be fit to make his second league start for the club against Liverpool at the Stadium of Light a week on Satutrday. Earlier, the Black Cats boss had declared his “excitement” at the prospect of turning Sunderland into Premier League entertainers this season, mounting a staunch defence of his preferred tactics.
O’Neill has been angered by suggestions that the teams he built in previous roles have been one-dimensional, with the emphasis on a couple of quick wingers and spearheaded by a “big” target man.
He signed Johnson and striker Steven Fletcher during the transfer window.
But he argues it is lazy to see the Scot’s arrival as simply a case of trying to make Sunderland more formidable in the air. He says his new £12million signing is just as impressive with the ball at his feet – just like many of his previous target men signings.
And with a pair of wingers who can make “something out of nothing”, he believes that Black Cats fans will be treated to something a lot more exciting than last year’s “needs must” brand of football.
“I was accused at a Press conference the other day with someone saying I’d signed a Martin O’Neill big type of centre-forward,” he said.
“I have had big centre-forwards but most of them could have done a bit.
“In terms of wing play, I’m delighted that I’ve had good wingers throughout my time in football, starting with Steve Guppy back at Wycombe Wanderers. Stevie ended up playing for England, which was fantastic.
“Right through from my time at Leicester, at Celtic and players like Ashley Young and Stewart Downing at Villa.
“They can go past people and they’re exciting in doing it. It’s not just excitement, I feel they can create something.
“These are players that can make something out of nothing.
“You do get a feel that something will happen when Johnson has got it.
“(James) McClean is wanting to step right up in his second year as well and I’m excited by it. I think we’re capable of creating something rather than just trying to grind.”
O’Neill’s hopes of doing that will certainly be enhanced by having Johnson (pictured below) on his books, with the winger having carved out a reputation as an attack-minded wide man with pace and the ability to turn a game on its head.
Despite that, he was not able to command a regular starting position at Manchester City.
After hearing for years that players have moved on because they feel the North East has been marginalised in the England set-up, it is a major boost for O’Neill that he has signed a winger with a major point to prove.
“You would not want to be throwing incredible accolades after him after a couple of games, but he is a joy to watch,” said O’Neill.
“Seamus McDonagh, my goalkeeping coach, said he would pay to watch him and I said to him ‘I will test you on that’ because he might be paying next week.
“He is an absolute genuine joy to watch and he just ghosts past players. He’s got great talent.
“The other afternoon he did turn his mate Catts and I was delighted Cattermole didn’t swing a leg at him. We don’t want to get carried away but he will excite us.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill has confirmed that he will look to loan out some of his fringe men when the emergency loan window opens over the weekend. Unwanted Connor Wickham is wanted by Burnley.
“Now the emergency loan window is getting ready to open this weekend, I’ll look at other things,” said O’Neill. “There is the possibility that maybe some players will go out on loan.”