CARLOS Cuellar knows all about Martin O’Neill’s particular brand of managerial alchemy, but the inspiration for his close-season switch to Sunderland came from an altogether more surprising source.
The Spanish defender says it was a testimonial from Darren Bent that convinced him to snub interest from abroad and opt to move to Wearside. Yes, that would be the same Bent who appeared to have burned his bridges when he moved south to Birmingham – and the same £18million striker who was vilified on his return to the Stadium of Light the next season.
It seems the affection that he had for Sunderland endures despite the acrimony, and his ringing endorsement of the city and the football club played a big part in convincing Cuellar that moving north would help to kick-start his career.
“It’s been fantastic first week,” he beamed before a breakfast pre-season session before Sunderland jetted off to South Korea.
“Everything is perfect, training is very good. My team-mates have given me a very good welcome and I’m so happy.
“I had a lot of options but I wanted to stay here. In England I like the Premier League and I feel comfortable here. I like the atmosphere, the professional life every day is a little bit different in Spain to here and I like to be here. I didn’t want to go back to Spain so the choice to come to Sunderland was easy because I wanted to stay in England. And I knew of Sunderland, of course.
“I knew because I had been with Darren Bent and he was always talking very good about the club, the city, the supporters, the atmosphere and everything. All the time when we were together he had good things to say. We were talking last year when Sunderland were interested and he was always saying good things.
“Even when I was in Scotland and in Spain I liked it too. I always watch the Premier League and I knew the club.”
Cuellar joins Sunderland at a critical juncture for the club, the first of an anticipated raft of new arrivals on O’Neill’s watch.
He wants to play centre-back but after a spell out of the team at Aston Villa, he is just happy to work for a manager who brought out the best in him during their previous spell together in the Second City.
O’Neill (pictured left) might not have always played him in his preferred position – or indeed in the first team at all on occasion – but there is a sizeable respect for the manager. Admiration that is laced with the belief that he is the man to convert Sunderland’s potential into prize-winning form.
“I think (he can do that). He has always had a good season wherever he has been,” he said. “I don’t want to put pressure on myself but you will see a hard team, a very strong team that likes to play football and likes to press and that would like to be as high as possible.”
On many occasions last season, O’Neill’s players were asked to surmise the qualities that had transformed them from underachievers into the division’s form team.
Quite often, the response offered precious little insight. That is not necessarily a criticism of the players being questioned, more a reflection of the fact that many of O’Neill’s managerial assets are subtle. Instilling belief and generating a good atmosphere seemed to be the foundations for last season’s good form.
Cuellar believes the secret to his excellent man management lies in his background as a professional footballer.
“Because he was a player he knows what you’re thinking every moment, what you need every moment and he is very good at reading how you’re feeling,” Cuellar said.
“He gives you everything you need to make sure you give him everything back. There is good communication and that makes it easy.
“In the way he trains and the way you play with him, it’s enjoyable but there is pressure too with him.
“Training every day is fantastic. It is always enjoyable, you come in happy every day, that is the main thing but afterwards there is a big pressure to play because he wants to win every game.
“You are allowed to play your football and do your best.
“You can have a different relationship with the manager, and have a joke maybe in training but when you have a game you have to work, you have to play, you have to be 100 per cent.
“He gives you a lot of confidence and you are allowed to do everything you want with your skills and the way you play – but there is a responsibility on you to work hard.”
Cuellar will make his debut in South Korea this week and his enthusiasm shines through.
He will certainly add something to this Sunderland squad.
And he added: “When you are young you have ambitions and dreams and my dream when I was in Spain was to play in La Liga for the big clubs, Madrid or Barcelona.
“But I couldn’t get it and when I got the opportunity, my other dream was to play in the Premier League. Now, for me, I am living a dream every day.”
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