MARTIN O’Neill has faith that hard work on the Academy of Light training pitches can turn Sunderland’s form around.
Aston Villa won Saturday’s meeting between two of the Premier League’s most out-of-form and shot-shy sides 1-0. The Black Cats’ second defeat of the week extended their run to one win in 17 league games.
Most alarmingly, their only shot on target came 84 minutes in, from holding midfielder Lee Cattermole.
O’Neill (pictured left), though, is adamant Sunderland’s fortunes can be reversed.
“I have belief in the team and the players,” he insisted. “They are good players just lacking in confidence but that will come.
“It is nine games into the season and we have picked up nine points. On Saturday I thought we should have added to our tally but it is ifs, buts and maybes.
“We were putting pressure on them, we have not created what you would call clear-cut chances but it’s the little half-chances where the keeper has made a save. But we will get there.
“I don’t think we deserved to lose and they scored when we were having our best spell. Nothing fell in the penalty box for us. Essentially it is the side I met up with (when I became manager in December) bar one or two changes. They are disappointed but we have the character (to recover).”
Those players were magnificent in O’Neill’s first 21 games, a demoralised squad transformed by an infusion of confidence. Quite rightly, there is no suggestion of a change of management at the Stadium of Light now, although terrace unrest is growing, with the team booed off as against Middlesbrough in midweek.
Wins and goals should bring confidence back, but it is something of a chicken-and-egg situation. O’Neill admits instilling it without them is hard.
“I know every manager and coach will say the same thing, to get back to the training ground and just do it,” he said. “We just have to keep working on things, but it is the $64,000 question. It will come.”
One of those who looks most bereft of confidence is £10m winger Adam Johnson. Again, patience and hard work were O’Neill’s only solutions.
“He has found it tough going,” he acknowledged. “He belonged for a couple of years to a very, very big team (Manchester City). He was, I suppose, considered an impact player there, coming off the bench, and maybe sometimes when the team were losing coming in to make something happen.
“I know from my own experience as a player that sometimes that is not so bad because there is little expectation. The expectation here of Adam is that he beats four or five players, skips past them, and creates something or puts a great ball in. At the moment all those things we feel he is capable of doing are just not right there yet.
“But again, he has got the ability. It has all hit him so very, very quickly here.
“Honestly, he will eventually come good. In the course of time he will be a hit with the fans.”
O’Neill does have a couple of factors in his favour, in the shape of the great support offered during the game by a 40,000-plus crowd, and the leadership of Cattermole, who was outstanding on Saturday.
“The encouragement the crowd to my right (in the South Stand) gave us, particularly in the last 10 or 12 minutes, I am hoping will stand us in good stead,” said O’Neill.
“Having said that, it is important for us to do something to get the crowd enthused.
“Cattermole’s performance kept people there, but we need to score some goals and the creative players need to get off and running.
“I said to (Cattermole) I thought it was an absolutely brilliant performance considering the team was beaten.
“If that was a victory it would have been heralded as one of the truly brilliant performances at this stadium in recent times.”