Martin O’Neill knows all too well the tough task awaiting him as Sunderland boss. Steve Brown reports.
HE confesses to feeling like a kid on his first day at school, and for Martin O’Neill the examination is about to begin.
“The questions do not get any easier,” he joked, during yesterday’s pre-match press conference.
Nor will they, unless Sunderland start finding some answers.
The Black Cats are in bother.
So while the new manager’s lofty ambitions – revealed at his unveiling on Tuesday and repeated yesterday – of following the paths of Barcelona and Arsenal are all well and good his side, despite playing better of late than results suggest, are light years from doing so just yet.
What they need, as he knows, is wins.
O’Neill said: “A couple of younger lads came up to me looking for autographs as I was coming out of the reserves game and that was very pleasing. Then an older man, probably about my age, shouted ‘You need to win some games, son’. Son? I think I was older than him, but I got what he was saying immediately.”
He hardly needs telling. Sunderland host Blackburn Rovers tomorrow one place and one point above them and the relegation zone.
They have won just two Premier League games this season and only three at the Stadium of Light in 2011.
O’Neill’s new team struggle to take their chances and, he has already identified, lacks pace.
So the tiki taka can wait. Pragmatism, not prettiness, is the priority.
He added: “I touched on it the other day. I always come back to the way Barcelona play and teams look to that.
“It is a long way in the future, but you would love to keep that in the back of your mind and think you could eventually have a team which could come out and play like that.
“Over the course of time, people will probably throw that back at me now!
“Over the last two years, Arsenal have been very easy on the eye and it would be lovely to play a brand of football which would excite the crowd.
“In my own time there, we seemed to have a reputation at Aston Villa for being a counter-attacking side, and when you have James Milner, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Gabriel Agbonlahor playing in the side that is probably quite true.
“There was a lot of pace in the side so it was almost natural to play that way, particularly away from home.
“I don’t think, from the first look here, we have that same kind of pace in the team, so you would have to adjust accordingly.
“We need to win football matches and I suppose at the moment pragmatism has to be the order of the day. We have to win games.”
O’Neill went on: “Points were thrown away against Wigan, but that has gone, we cannot do anything about it.
“The Wolves game was particularly disappointing. So just getting something on the board might be very, very important but it does not mean we will not strive to win the game. There is a group of teams who seem much, much better than the rest of the league and then there is a group after that you would say are capable of gaining results from each other.
“That does not mean you cannot win against the big teams but there is a mini-league going on and it is up to us now to try and win games in there.
“There are two ways of turning it round.
“First, you get onto the training ground and start getting a bit of confidence again by controlling the ball, passing it properly and having a shot or two at goal. The other aspect is about getting out on the pitch, seeing a bad patch through and just winning a game.”
Not that O’Neill foresees matters being quite so straightforward.
He added: “Blackburn have actually been playing pretty well and sometimes have not had the results to go with it. Now they are on a roll, it was a great win for them last week (4-2 over Swansea City) and so they will come here with plenty of confidence.
“Yakubu’s record is excellent, he scored four goals last week – we could have done with one or two of those!
“It is a big game for both clubs, and really important even at this fairly early stage of the season.
“I think that regardless, every game in the Premier League now is so demanding. Wherever you step into it, I think it would have been a big game, and ideally my timing is not great.
“You are coming in when you are about to play a number of games.
“It is a hectic period and in a normal course of events you would not really want to be experimenting with games coming up thick and fast.
“I am looking forward to the challenge and Sunday’s game. I am hugely excited about it.